Phil Smith: What Sunderland need in the final week of the window to become Championship contenders

Simon Grayson and Robbie Stockdale have their work cut out before the transfer window slams shut.
Simon Grayson and Robbie Stockdale have their work cut out before the transfer window slams shut.
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The importance of the transfer window may have been blown out of all proportion by yellow ties and yellow tickers, but it is no exaggeration to say that the next eight days will have a defining impact on Sunderland’s season.

There is January, too, of course, a month that served Roy Keane very well indeed last time Sunderland were in this division.

Simon Grayson will hope for the same but he also needs to end this summer window well.

Four league games in and he has already, impressively, allayed fears of a Southampton or Leeds style collapse. He has shown that he has the tools and the nous to put out a competitive side, capable of beating anyone.

At the moment, however, it remains a touch one dimensional.

In midfield he has real athleticism, he has quality in the wide areas and the heart of his defence has largely impressed.

As they showed against Norwich, they can absorb pressure and pick off teams on the counter. Chasing games looks to be a problem, Grayson not really having the options he needed in reserve to take the game to Leeds United on Saturday evening once his side fell behind.

Building that depth will be the difference between mid-table and a play-off push, summed up perfectly by the four points Sheffield Wednesday, whose depth is the envy of most in the league, have already rescued in the second half of games this season.

Clearly, any outgoings need to be replaced. At the moment, they look most likely to be Wahbi Khazri, Didier Ndong and Lamine Kone, though it is worth stressing that with both the former and the latter of those three, transfer talk remains surprisingly quiet.

Even with that trio, and even if they are replaced adequately, Sunderland are still surely, at the very least, two players short.

Lewis Grabban has been excellent thus far, showing excellent vision and real composure, while James Vaughan’s work-rate has been well received. What looks to be lacking is the centre-forward who can really stretch the opposition defence with runs in behind and into the channels. Grayson has done much to improve Sunderland’s threat, but pace is still required.

The Black Cats have also lacked some composure in midfield, too many stray passes, too many promising breaks spurned.

Sunderland’s tenacity and energy with Lee Cattermole and Didier Ndong is superb, but a player who can dictate the pace of the game and bring control in possession, as the likes of Barry Bannan and Tom Cairney have done so successfully for their sides in recent years, is missing.

Wahbi Khazri, if he stays, will become more prominent and used by Grayson as a number ten, but even at his best he is an unpredictable and frenetic player. A playmaker, though hard to find, would be a major boost.

Grayson, to his credit, is more relaxed than anyone and much of that is due to the imminent return of Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair.

Watmore in particular will make a significant difference, able to play out wide or through the middle. For both, however, time and patience will be required as they recover from their first serious career injury, and one notoriously punishing on players.

The Black Cats boss is right not to want to block their progression and tie up unnecessary money in squad players, particularly given his plethora of central midfielders.

Nevertheless, it is major risk to assume their seamless return, and his promising side are surely a touch of a craft, and an injection of speed, away from being a force truly to be reckoned with.