Reassessing Sunderland's two most contentious summer deals and why talented pair are struggling to make an impact
The summer of 2018 will no doubt be remembered fondly by Sunderland supporters.
After two woeful seasons the takeover led by Stewart Donald sparked a new wave of excitement and engagement with the city’s football club. New seats, new players, new manager, new-found optimism.
The Black Cats have ridden that wave into the new season and look set to do so for a while yet.
Sunderland’s new owners won praise for their summer business, though there were two deals that raised eyebrows.
For the most part, their sales were seen as fair and good for the club.
Wahbi Khazri fetched a good price after an excellent season in Ligue 1. Jason Steele did not comnmand a fee but removing his wages from the book was undoubtedly a positive move.
The sales of Paddy McNair and Joel Asoro, however, were not universally welcomed.
The pair had impressed in the latter stages of the Championship campaign, and were players who Chris Coleman had identified as having the potential to be the heartbeat of a resurgent team.
Some felt their full value had not been recouped.
So three months into the season, how do those deals look with the benefit of hindsight?
McNair’s form at the end of last season had been so good that many felt a longer run in the side would have saved Sunderland’s season.
Injuries had curbed his progress for much of the campaign but in the closing months, his drive and athleticism as the most advanced player in a midfield three was nothing short of exceptional.
23, in form and seemingly ready to take his game to the next level, he looked a prized asset.
Which he was.
There was plenty of interest but the perception of McNair, to the new regime and clubs hovering, was slightly different. They saw a midfielder who had struggled to string games together for two seaons and who on the whole was relatively inexperienced in senior football.
Brighton valued him at just over £2 million, what they felt a talented squad player was worth.
Sunderland rightly baulked at that but few clubs were willing to go higher.
Middlesbrough did, but as Dominic Shaw of Teesside Live tells us, it has not been plain sailing thus far.
“Paddy McNair was unfortunate to pick up an injury in the week leading up to the opening game of the season at Millwall - but has been playing catch-up ever since,” he says.
“His Boro career has been a story of frustration so far.
“When he signed in the summer it was thought he’d tick the boxes of what Boro were missing in the middle of the park: an imposing presence who’d get from box to box and chip in with goals. His signing was welcomed, this was the kind of player that Boro had craved for a while. So far, though, his only opportunities in midfield have been fleeting cameos from the bench. Five of them in the league.
“In the opening day draw at Millwall, with McNair ruled out, former Northern League player Lewis Wing - who had enjoyed an excellent pre-season - was introduced in midfield from the bench and had a match-changing impact.
“Since then, both Mo Besic and George Saville have arrived. Then there’s Adam Clayton and Jonny Howson who were already at Boro, and Grant Leadbitter, who hasn’t been able to get a place in the squad of late. So you get an idea as to just how well stocked Boro are in that area of the pitch.
“It’s no secret McNair sees himself as a midfielder but it’s hard to see how he breaks in,” Shaw adds.
“His national team boss Michael O’Neil has been urging him to embrace the idea of becoming a right wing-back after impressing there for Northern Ireland. McNair says he’ll play anywhere but that position also doesn’t come without its obstacles at Boro, namely Ryan Shotton, who is one of the first names on Pulis’s teamsheet.
“McNair has started the last two games in that position with Shotton ruled out with injury. This is the opportunity he’s been waiting for, but he’s looked a touch rusty, understandable given his lack of football so far.
“It feels unfair to judge the fee given we haven’t really seen much of McNair yet.
“When he came in, it was thought he’d be a big player for Boro. So far it hasn’t gone to plan.
“Pulis has praised McNair at every opportunity for his professionalism on the training pitch and his approach day to day but McNair would much prefer to be getting praised for performances on the pitch.”
In the end Sudnerland are believed to have struck a deal worth just about what they paid for McNair back in 2016.
There is no question that McNair at his best could be worth almost double that.
British, athletic and with an eye for goal, he can sparkle as a box-to-box midfielder.
It would be no surprise to see him eventually forge a Premier League career but his Middlesbrough struggles show that he is far from the finished article.
Given Sunderland’s need for funds in the summer, their third tier status and other club’s doubts about McNair, it is beginning to look like a deal easier to understand.
Asoro’s searing pace endeared him to Sunderland supporters but from a financial perspective there was a problem.
The forward had just one-year left on his deal and made clear that he wanted a move.
That raised the real prospect of losing him on a free down the line.
So a valuation was tricky. Asoro’s talent was obvious but for balance, he still had only three senior goals to his name.
Sunderland accepted a £2 million fee and Asoro hit the ground running for Graham Potter.
But it has been tough going since the season began. Andrew Gwilym covers Swansea City home and away for Wales Online and says that like McNair, Asoro is struggling to make a real impression.
“There was plenty of excitement when Joel Asoro became Graham Potter’s first Swansea signing and proceeded to rip full-backs to shreds during pre-season,” he says.
“The Sweden Under-21 international settled quickly and he was one of the major plus points of Swansea’s build-up to the campaign during what was a tumultuous summer.
“However, he has not really managed to carry that form over into the season proper.
“There were encouraging signs in the wins over Sheffield United and Preston; he set up the winner in the latter.
“But he had a chastening night at Birmingham - although he was not alone - and his form has dipped since,” he adds.
“Of course, he is still a teenager so perhaps it has not been a major surprise that he is not completely on top of the physicality of the Championship and expectations were maybe unfairly high after pre-season.
“He has had a couple of injuries too, which have not helped, but on current form Daniel James and Connor Roberts are the form wide men at Swansea and no-one is making a compelling case to take either of their places right now.
“Asoro’s chance will come, but he is having to be patient for now.”
A sell-on clause means Sunderland are protected should Asoro reach his full potential.
His struggles to break past Swansea’s own youngsters show how much has to develop in his game.
He remains well behind McNair in his readiness to make an impact, and so this deal seems increasingly hard to challenge.
In both cases, the desire for the new regime to show Sunderland would not be a soft touch in the market collided with the reality of the situation.
Months on, it looks as if they struck a reasonable balance.