What next for Sunderland? Chris Young looks at O’Neill’s need for an improved squad

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A little under two months ago, the Sunderland juggernaut continued on its relentless path, with even the most awkward of obstacles failing to halt its momentum.

The first home defeat of Martin O’Neill’s stewardship, a 4-0 rout at West Bromwich Albion and the dejection of conceding a last-gasp equaliser in the derby couldn’t take the gloss off Sunderland’s fortunes in mid-March.

The 1-0 Stadium of Light success over Liverpool left Sunderland in the lofty heights of eighth spot, two points adrift of the Reds, with an FA Cup quarter-final against their Merseyside neighbours, Everton, still to come.

That hushed word “Europe” didn’t venture into the news agenda to the same extent as last season, yet Sunderland’s upsurge in fortunes made them an astute outside bet for either catching their arch-rivals or reaching a first FA Cup final in 20 years.

But it would prove to be the peak of Sunderland’s campaign.

The dismal display in the FA Cup replay, coupled with an April as dull as the weather, have thrust all eyes towards next season when the mighty shoots of recovery under O’Neill can completely blossom.

It can hardly be classed as a disaster that the season has concluded this way, given the situation O’Neill inherited.

Wearside would have gladly accepted a stale mid-table finish on O’Neill’s arrival after Sunderland had begun to develop that dangerous trait of conceding howlers and continually spurring chances.

The final few weeks have also demonstrated that O’Neill is not a miracle worker, despite the early signs suggesting as much.

He was able to get the very best out of those in red and white for four months before fatigue – mental and physical – has ultimately taken its toll and left Sunderland in a position which accurately represents their current state.

Perhaps that is no bad thing.

Now, there is no shielding O’Neill from the deficiencies in his squad, nor the areas for improvement.

Results may well take on a freakish air over the final two games and propel Sunderland to dizzying heights. But it’s highly unlikely.

Like last season, Sunderland will have flirted with the top eight and ultimately fallen short – and that is no coincidence. The same problems from last summer remain – notably a shortage of quality in attack, a lack of natural width and a need to recruit greater strength in depth.

Certainly, the lack of goals from the frontmen is the obvious area for transfer surgery if Sunderland are to edge their way further up the table next season.

However painful it may be, the Black Cats need look no further than Newcastle’s success this season for the benefits of adding a goalscorer or two to a workmanlike, well-drilled side.

Sunderland have not boasted a penalty box poacher since Darren Bent left 18 months ago and the lack of a striker able to benefit from the delivery of James McClean and Seb Larsson has only been further exasperated by Nicklas Bendtner’s forays to the flanks.

Throughout his managerial career, O’Neill’s teams have been characterised by a strong, bustling centre-forward and that will be at the heart of his recruitment strategy this summer.

O’Neill also has a penchant for wingers and Sunderland need to add to their arsenal from the flanks, not least because McClean is the sole natural wideman on the club’s books.

As much as Larsson has contributed in his maiden season on Wearside, the Swede is not adept at beating a full-back with pace or trickery.

Sunderland rely on McClean as an outlet and opposition defences inevitably double up on the former Derry City man to harness the threat of the Black Cats.

Two wingers stretching the back line would make all the difference, yet Sunderland’s quest to break into the top eight is not as simple as recruiting a new striker and wideman.

Other than between the sticks, Sunderland require strength in depth throughout their ranks.

Tellingly, O’Neill has used his maximum allocation of substitutes in just two of the last 11 games.

There is clearly a lack of faith from the Sunderland boss as he looks over his shoulder towards the dug-out and the Black Cats need players who can enter the fray and change the outcome of a match, rather than simply make up the numbers.

A core of players has emerged who O’Neill considers suitable for a starting spot, with the rest earning the odd minute here or there.

That leads to fatigue in those who are virtually ever-present and there has clearly been a correlation between tiredness and defeats over recent weeks.

It’s no coincidence that losses to Blackburn, Everton in the cup and again in the league, have all come in midweek when Sunderland have still been feeling the effects of the previous Saturday’s exertions.

Sunderland need some viable options in the squad, something all of the top eight boast, arguably apart from Newcastle.

But then we’ve been here before.

Steve Bruce found himself in a similar situation last summer after Sunderland dropped down the pyramid to eventually finish in 10th spot.

The Black Cats needed an injection of quality over the close season and due to a number of departures, Bruce had to consider quantity as well.

But a splash of top-notch talent, even in a solitary signing, can make the difference between an admirable 10th-placed finish and an outstanding sixth spot.

Begrudgingly, Newcastle are testament to that.