Chris Young’s post-match analysis: Clear Sunderland are still short

Sunderland's Jozy Altidore.
Sunderland's Jozy Altidore.
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ASINGLE-MINDED purpose possessed Sunderland in the transfer market while their Premier League peers were topping up their tans.

Once the curtain came down on a largely impotent campaign, Sunderland’s hierarchy had a crystal clear list of who they wanted to bring to the Stadium of Light.

Director of football Roberto De Fanti and chief scout Valentino Angeloni delved confidently into the transfer market and got their targets.

There were some they missed out on – Lucas Orban, Benjamin Mendy and Gino Peruzzi.

And there were others whose availability surprised the Sunderland hierarchy; notably Emanuele Giaccherini.

But, over the last month or so, that sense of clear targets has become muddied.

The Premier League’s restrictions on the wage bill has hampered Sunderland, but the Black Cats have meandered through the first two games of the season with two major question marks still hanging over this squad.

Who will provide the answer to Paolo Di Canio’s understandable desire for a midfield playmaker?

And will Stephane Sessegnon leave Wearside after months of contrasting messages over his future?

There are side issues.

The lack of a specialist left-back remains a deficiency. Even if Jack Colback is a more than adequate re-modelled defender, there is no cover for the Tynesider. When he limped off on Saturday, Sunderland were left lopsided.

Yet it is the two big unanswerables which have plagued Sunderland in each of the first two games and been clear factors towards a humble return of a solitary point – even if a draw at St Mary’s will look an increasingly respectable result in hindsight.

By compulsion, Sunderland need to find resolutions on the playmaker and Sessegnon issues over the next seven days.

Even if the Middle East transfer windows linger open a touch longer, Sunderland would need to (a) replace Sessegnon and (b) make the most of the recouped funds if they sold the Benin international.

Providing the right answers is a stern test of Sunderland’s new Italian hierarchy because Di Canio’s side paid the price for their shortcomings in midfield and up front on Saturday.

The caveat has to be that Southampton are now an impressive outfit, surely destined for a top 10 finish with a bright, energetic and intelligent style.

Would supporters have accepted a point beforehand?

The vast majority undoubtedly would have done.

This could have been so much more though had Sunderland been able to release the steam from the pressure cooker in the second half.

Sunderland were unambitious in the opening 45 minutes, but stuck effectively to their gameplan after Giaccherini’s first goal in English football.

The decision to partner Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson in central midfield was a major surprise and there has to be a suspicion that there was more to Cabral’s snub than Di Canio was letting on.

Cabral, impressive on his debut against Fulham, barely even warmed up on the St Mary’s touchline and Di Canio’s suggestion that he lacks physical bite was odd.

The decision to introduce David Vaughan, who has been cast to the fringes even during pre-season, over Cabral was even odder.

But the Gardner/Larsson axis worked for that first half.

No, Sunderland didn’t create, but that didn’t seem to be the blueprint for success.

The two former Birmingham City men were asked to sit deep, keep their shape and pressurise Southampton’s midfielders at the first sniff of possession.

It proved to be pragmatic, but largely effective.

Southampton could have drawn level before the break – Jay Rodriguez’s “goal” was marginal at best, while it took a smart save from Keiren Westwood to keep out Rickie Lambert’s header.

But Sunderland largely frustrated Southampton’s attempts to get in behind them, in a manner reminiscent of Fulham at the Stadium of Light seven days earlier.

Such a ploy has a best before date though.

As the hosts cranked up the pressure during a frantic second half, Sunderland needed some respite – let alone the threat of a killer second goal – which they couldn’t muster.

Giaccherini was the only midfielder boasting a sense of composure and too often Sunderland were pressurised into a game of hot potato.

Gardner’s enforced move to right-back didn’t help and the Brummie struggled with the change individually too, even if Modibo Diakite’s improvement during the second half added some stability to the defence.

But neither was there an outlet up front to draw the attention of Southampton’s back-line and prevent their full-backs rampaging forward.

Sessegnon was marginally less ineffectual than he was against Fulham, but Sunderland’s front two still worried the Southampton defence during the first half.

Jozy Altidore’s control in the penalty box was sloppy, but Saints’ centre-halves were put on the back foot when the American got his back to goal and Sunderland tried to pick him out with low crosses.

Sessegnon at least stretched the defence by drifting wide too, yet found himself hooked at the interval. Replacement Ji Dong-won provoked as many questions as answers.

The ball through for Altidore’s shot blocked well by Artur Boruc was a superb one, while it was an intelligent run to latch onto Adam Johnson’s raking pass at the start of the second half, even if the finish was tame.

But Ji also proved lightweight and unreliable in possession and, on several occasions, inexplicably slid into challenges on halfway which only proved to be cheap giveaways.

Altidore was little more effective in offering that attacking outlet which Sunderland needed so desperately and the 23-year-old looks to still be learning how to make the most of his physique.

Undoubtedly, the return of Steven Fletcher should hand him more room to operate and that surely looks Sunderland’s likely first-choice strike partnership.

Di Canio needs options up top though.

Either Sessegnon stays, the distraction of a possible exit is removed and he provides that attacking alternative.

Or else he goes and Sunderland can get on with signing a replacement.

A clearer picture by this time next week will prove beneficial for everyone.