Five ways Sunderland can ensure they get off to a flying Premier League start
If Sunderland are to break the seemingly never-ending cycle of relegation woe then they must set the tone in the first five games.
Sam Allardyce says the opening weeks are crucial for the entire campaign.
He said: “The challenge to the team that starts next season – whatever we do recruitment wise, business wise, player wise – is that the team starts off by winning two or three of the first five, not losing them which they have done for the last four seasons.”
So what do Sunderland need to do in order to improve on their early-season form?
Ensure the players are fully fit: The main aim of pre-season is to ensure the players – both new and old – are fully fit, have gelled as a unit and know the systems they will be playing.
Yet, on the opening day of last season Sunderland were thumped 4-2 at Leicester City with the team’s lack of fitness a major factor.
The long-haul trip to the US and Canada proved counter-productive with Dick Advocaat’s Sunderland squad under-cooked and not at the required fitness levels for Premier League football.
Allardyce stressed that point when he arrived in October.
And the results slowly began to improve as the fitness levels improved under his watch.
The same mistakes of last pre-season cannot be repeated.
Get the pre-season programme right: Allardyce is not a huge fan of long-haul trips to far off places for pre-season trips and that is reflected in the club’s plans this year.
Instead, Sunderland’s first team squad will this year jet off to Austria for an intense week of fitness building.
The training camp will be closed to the public, with no games scheduled. That will be followed by two away friendlies against Hartlepool United and Rotherham United.
Sunderland will also play a number of games in Europe in late July/early August.
It is a sensible pre-season programme aimed at getting the players up to speed without jetting all around the world.
For once, use the momentum gained from the end of last season: Sunderland are well versed in timing their end of season climb up the Premier League table to perfection.
But they never manage to carry the momentum from the end of one season into the start of the next.
Last summer they picked up just three points from their opening eight games, with draws against Swansea City, Aston Villa and West Ham United – Advocaat’s last game in charge.
A shocking run of form that set the tone. Sunderland never managed to climb above 17th all season.
Sunderland should be targeting at least two wins from their opening five league matches.
Fans will be hoping the first few weeks of the league calendar is kind when it is revealed on June 15.
Ensure key signings are in place for the start of the season: One of the major problems faced by managers is the season begins two-and-half weeks before the transfer window closes.
Sunderland – like the 19 other top flight teams – are unlikely to be starting the season with the same team as when the window closes.
It is a major issue but Sunderland must have their key men in place from the time the first ball is kicked.
A new striker, centre-back and attacking flair in midfield are all key priorities, with Allardyce also keen to make Yann M’Vila’s loan deal permanent.
Ensure the system is in place ahead of the opening game: Sunderland had a clear way of playing under Allardyce in the final months of the campaign.
The 61-year-old set his side up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Jan Kirchhoff in the holding midfield role and Jermain Defoe spearheading the attack.
It reaped rewards with Sunderland picking up vital victories over Norwich City, Chelsea and Everton on their way to Premier League survival.
Much will depend on the summer recruitment but fans can be rest assured they have the right man at the helm to produce the most effective style of play.
Whether he keeps faith with that system or tries something new, it must be honed to perfection over pre-season.
After all, the first five games are key. “You would strive very hard to make sure our first five games are our most important next year,” said Allardyce.