The complete, position-by-position verdict on the January window and where it leaves Sunderland

Antoine Semenyo, the first confirmed January target for Sunderland, became their fifth and final signing two hours before the deadline on Friday night.

Saturday, 1st February 2020, 8:46 am

All in all, it meant that the Black Cats completed nine incoming or outgoing deals in a busy month, while there were also some key developments for some of their younger players.

So what does it all mean for Phil Parkinson, and crucially, is his squad now strong enough for the promotion challenge ahead?

We take a close look, position by position….

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Antoine Semenyo in action for Newport County last season
Antoine Semenyo in action for Newport County last season

DEFENCE

IN: Bailey Wright, Declan John

OUT: Laurens De Bock

Defence was an area that Sunderland came into the month in reasonable strength.

The opening weeks and months of the season had been a curious one in which the Black Cats were being held back by a chronic lack of clean sheets.

Yet bizarrely, their defensive stats were immensely improved. What last season had been a major issue for Jack Ross had changed in that the Black Cats were giving up far fewer and clearer chances to their opponents.

Ross himself noted that whereas last season Jon McLaughlin was a hugely prominent figure, this campaign he was involved far less.

Minor lapses and errors were costing Sunderland and though it took Phil Parkinson a while to turn that improvement into clean sheets, the recent results have been a long time coming and hugely encouraging.

The upshot of it all was that Parkinson found himself with four central defenders in solid form, an excellent goalkeeper edging back towards his best and two attacking wing-backs with plenty of energy.

In all departments, he will feel January is a case of a job well done.

Major contract talks loom in the case of McLaughlin, but the month has passed without any transfer interest materialising.

Parkinson has strengthened his options in the back three with the arrival of Bailey Wright, who immediately settled into the vital central role and impressed against Tranmere Rovers.

Physically he was imposing, he was vocal and showed an excellent ability to read the game.

Out wide, Laurens De Bock’s departure left the Black Cats short on cover but the arrival of Declan John makes sense for two key reasons.

Firstly, he looks a better replacement for Hume in that his attacking attributes and direct style are similar.

Secondly, it’s a deal that gives Hume competition but one should not impede his development.

With four clean sheets in a row, it’s an area of the pitch increasingly becoming a pillar of strength for Parkinson, who now has two proven performers in every position.

Wright was one of the deals he wanted above all else and one of his best decisions as Sunderland boss so far could prove to be to hold out for a player of his proven pedigree in the moments when the deal looked as if it might not happen, and other options were on the table, ready to go.

CENTRAL MIDFIELD

IN: Josh Scowen, Ethan Robson

OUT: Dylan McGeouch

Parkinson quickly settled on Max Power and George Dobson as his preferred partnership and the results have by and large been effective, but the lack of cover was a glaring concern for both supporters and manager.

Grant Leadbitter brings experience and leadership but as Parkinson shifted to a high-intensity style, his game-time was reduced.

Josh Scowen was Parkinson’s top target, and fitted the bill perfectly.

He’s at a good age, but has experience of success both at this level and above. Above all else, he brings energy and an ability and willingness to press that means a suspension or injury will not necessarily force the manager to change his style.

Ethan Robson faces a tough battle to fight his way into the side, but can take heart from the fact that Parkinson has been genuinely encouraged by both his technical quality and physical output in training.

Five options for two positions gives Parkinson the competition and cover he craves.

ATTACKING MIDFIELD

IN: Antoine Semenyo

OUT: Marc McNulty, Aiden McGeady

It is in the forward areas where Parkinson and Sunderland have taken the biggest risks this window.

The exclusion of McGeady, who joined Charlton Athletic in deadline day’s first deal, was of course about far more than on-pitch performance.

The Black Cats boss was absolutely insistent that this was a call he simply had to make, that the improvements he wanted in the team’s culture simply wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Nevertheless, his decision removed one of Sunderland’s key attacking and creative weapons. Even if his form had not reached last season’s levels, he remained a fairly regular goalscorer and until recently, that remained the case with Marc McNulty, too.

The change in shape saw McNulty come to be seen as more of an attacking midfielder, but Parkinson conceded he was unlucky not to see more minutes over the Christmas period.

The Scot was simply a victim of Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch’s exceptional form, and Parkinson was by no means eager to move him on.

With huge Scotland games looming and the chance to return a club where he remains adored on the table, McNulty simply felt the opportunity was too good to pass up.

Parkinson’s one addition to this area is Antoine Semenyo.

A largely unproven talented who impressed at Newport last season and is highly rated at Bristol City, but has played little senior football above League Two level.

What he does bring is some key attribute that Parkinson, like the vast majority of the Sunderland support, believes is lacking.

‘Pace and Power’ are two words that have dominated discussion surrounding recruitment at Sunderland and what Semenyo certainly looks to add is some crucial variety and a change of tempo to Sunderland’s attack.

It is a tick in Sunderland’s box, too, that they remained patient and landed the target that Parkinson publicly made clear was a top priority as far back as December 29th.

Parkinson will be conscious of the need to ensure that Gooch and Maguire maintain their form, but any discussion of these two key positions should take into account that he also believes Elliot Embleton has a genuine part to play in adding real guile and craft when he returns from injury in just over a week’s time.

STRIKER

IN: Kyle Lafferty

The area of the pitch were supporters are perhaps most concerned.

It was the department Parkinson was most eager to address in the window when he first arrived, though the return from injury of Charlie Wyke was always going to be key.

He looks fitter and more confident, enjoying the key role he had been handed in Parkinson’s style and shape.

The manager needed more, however, and took an intriguing gamble in the form of Kyle Lafferty.

Parkinson has taken complete ownership of that call, preferring Lafferty to more consistent League One performers in the likes of Liam Boyce and Gary Madine.

Parkinson’s instinct was that Lafferty’s club and international career suggested a player who would thrives on bigger stages and in higher-pressure matches.

His first cameos have been encouraging, clearly showing a striker capable of executing Parkinson’s gameplan, though full match fitness remains some way off.

Where the main question lies is whether Sunderland have the kind of prolific goalscorer who can see them over the line and with that in mind, one of the most interesting developments over the coming months will be to see whether Parkinson can coax improved form from the striker.

The pair held positive talks in the last week as it became increasingly clear that there was no exit route desirable for either player or club.

Parkinson has insisted that he will be better for the change in shape, that it will leave him less isolated and more effective when the chance comes.

VERDICT

The window perhaps declined in importance, just a touch, as Sunderland’s form turned.

Increasingly, it became less about overhaul and more about ensuring there was depth in the positions becoming key to a shape and style yielding improved results.

Expectations were set high by a club statement promising investment, and supporters will ultimately make their own judgement on whether they feel that has been met.

By and large, they are signings that prioritise the now, rather than the future, though in Wright and Scowen the Black Cats clearly believe they have two players who can grow with them over a longer period of time.

Above all else, the story of the window was one of a squad transitioning to the very different demands of a new manager.

In that sense, there is cause for optimism.

There is far more depth for his current system, and his patience also means he landed targets identified way in advance.

That suitability for his style has already been evident in the brief glimpses of the new additions so far.

Whether it is enough for a promotion surge, only time will tell.

Many still harbour some concerns when it comes to goals and creativity, and in that sense, key above all else is that Parkinson can maintain the upturn in form from so many of the players who were already at his disposal.