Chris Young: Can any January signings REALLY make a difference for Sunderland?

Fabio Borini celebrates his consolation
Fabio Borini celebrates his consolation
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Twelve months ago, Christmas proved to be a very merry one for Sunderland after a third consecutive victory at St James’s Park left the club on course for slow, but steady, progress.

Festive joy is in short supply this time around though.

Worryingly, Santa might be delivering a fresh batch of bah humbug spirit over the next nine days too, unless Manchester City or Liverpool over-indulge in the sherry.

The January transfer window is like an oasis of blind hope on the horizon; offering the mere possibility that Sunderland can recruit players capable of performing consistently enough to haul the club away from the precipice leading to the Championship abyss.

But, realistically, is it going to alter the pattern of the season sufficiently to avoid relegation?

Which players – of any quality – are going to want to sign for Sunderland at present?

Yes, there’ll always be those willing to bank the almighty shilling on offer in the Premier League.

The danger then, though, is that you can all too easily end up with the £50million of “talent” that Aston Villa recruited in the summer.

Sunderland will predominantly have to sign those reaching the end of their careers, Championship players, youngsters eager to prove themselves, or – and perhaps this is the best case scenario – hungry overseas performers who want a crack at showing what they can do in the Premier League.

None offer particularly encouraging guarantees that they will make a tangible difference.

What’s more, selling clubs will ramp up the price tags because of the new television deal, even if it’s for a loan fee.

No wonder Sam Allardyce spent time away from the Academy of Light on scouting trips early last week. He’s having to look for needles in a rather large haystack.

That’s why Sunderland’s summer business was so important after years of bungled recruitment.

They needed to spend astutely then, to avoid panicky buys in January.

Yet the big-money capture from the close season, Jeremain Lens, wasn’t even on the bench at Stamford Bridge. That’s one of those side-effects of changing managers and the new man at the helm looking at his players with fresh eyes.

In fact, only four out of the eight summer signings started at Chelsea.

Of those, it would be a major surprise if Ola Toivonen kept his place at Manchester City on Boxing Day, even if Jack Rodwell is suspended.

The on-loan Swede was so poor in the opening 45 minutes that Allardyce may have little choice than to use Adam Johnson and / or Jordi Gomez alongside Yann M’Vila at the Etihad.

With Seb Larsson and Lee Cattermole still out, that central midfield area really is a worry heading into two months which can so often determine the outcome of the season.

Sunderland are understood to be largely focusing on a new centre-forward and centre-half in the January window, with both understandable priorities.

They need a new midfielder too though.

Yann M’Vila tried his best, yet there was barely a hint of a red and white foundation in the middle of the park in the first half.

At times, it was training ground stuff for a Chelsea side who couldn’t believe their luck as they began to make amends in front of a fractious, Jose Mourinho-loyal crowd.

The impressive Oscar ghosted through the Sunderland defence at little more than walking pace midway through the first half, before being denied by Costel Pantilimon.

But it’s not just the midfield that’s the problem.

The lack of options in the heart of defence is almost beyond breaking point.

It was a surprise to see Sebastian Coates emerge from the team bus after he had been struggling with illness last week and the performance did nothing to suggest that he shouldn’t have been tucked up in bed with a Lemsip.

Coates was culpable for both of Chelsea’s first two goals – allowing Branislav Ivanovic to comfortably head home the equaliser and then failing to clear the Serbian’s cross before Pedro tucked it away – and Sunderland never recovered.

As a consequence, Allardyce was forced to change his entire set-up after 20-odd minutes for the second successive Saturday.

That says an awful lot.

Some will blame Allardyce for not getting his starting XI right in the first place, yet, after the wins over Palace and Stoke, plus the performance at Arsenal, the overwhelming majority of supporters would have kept a five-man defence with Younes Kaboul back in the fold.

The far bigger message is that Allardyce still doesn’t know his strongest XI or strongest formation two-and-a-half months after taking charge at the Stadium of Light.

No-one really does.

There are too many individuals lacking cohesion; too many players who produce on a one-off basis who then revert to bad old habits.

Allardyce – not for the first time – described it as a “fear factor “ which his players have to flush out of their system.

But the real fright stems from looking at the Christmas league table. If it hadn’t been for a Villa side who have regularly proved to be cannon fodder this season, Sunderland would be propping up the pile.

Setting aside the miraculous escapes from Sunderland and Leicester over the last two seasons, we all know the adage about what happens to teams who are bottom at Christmas.