Explaining Sunderland's Bailey Wright conundrum and the transfer strategy leaving fans nervous ahead of League One campaign

After the curtailment of the 2019/20 campaign, Sunderland's senior management began planning their next steps and top of the list was a key question.

Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 4:17 pm

Would the Black Cats double down on the 3-4-3 system that Phil Parkinson had used in the second half of the season?

The switch to that shape had sparked a seemingly unlikely rise up the table, but there was a sense that Sunderland were becoming too predictable and results tailed off at the worst possible time.

The answer, though, was that they would.

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Sunderland head coach Lee Johnson

Parkinson had one or tweaks planned, including pushing one of the two midfield anchors further forward, but broadly the template would be similar.

With summer recruitment in mind, that call meant that Bailey Wright unsurprisingly became the number one target.

Injury had stalled his progress but the way he had performed in the opening games of his loan spell was fresh in the minds of staff and supporters alike.

The system suited him perfectly, with athleticism either side allowing him to marshal and organise with conviction.

Bailey Wright in action for Sunderland

Good in the air and in defensive duels, Wright was the defensive leader Sunderland had lacked in their first 18 months in the third tier.

There was interest from the Championship and abroad but this was the deal Parkinson wanted above all others.

When it was sealed, it represented a fairly significant investment relative to the level and the then Black Cats boss made a point of thanking Stewart Donald for getting the deal done.

A year on, Sunderland has a new footballing regime in place and Wright's future is uncertain.

The Black Cats look to have an interesting conundrum on their hands, and one that tells us much about their potentially high-risk strategy for the summer.

When Sunderland released their retained list in the aftermath of that play-off defeat to Lincoln City, there was some surprise but also broad support for the scale of change being initiated.

Sunderland, it was clear, were in for a significant rebuild.

The word in the game was that the initial decisions on out-of-contract players only scratched the surface of what was being planned.

The uncertainty over Wright's future is a reflection of that.

There is significant interest in the Australian defender from Wigan Athletic, who alongside Ipswich Town have made investing heavily and early in League One talent the key pillar of their transfer strategy.

Johnson is not looking to offload the centre-back, per se. As he outlined after the draw with York City on Tuesday night, he believes Wright can find another level on the pitch when fully fit.

Having made him his captain at Bristol City, Johnson knows better than anyone the positive influence the experienced and composed Wright can have on a group.

There are other factors at play, though, and his guarded response said as much: "He's got a year left on his contract.

"We've been very open and honest with Bailey all the way through.

"I don't think the new ownership have seen the best of Bailey Wright, in terms of, he's got to do better than the last ten games of last season.

"At the same time, he can, and he was a real warrior in that time because he'd been out for nine or ten weeks and then came in and had about ten games on the spin.

"We also know what he brings off the pitch more than anyone, he's a fantastic human being and a great leader for us.

"Performances have been steady but I know there's more to come."

Sunderland are expected to operate largely with a back four this season, and more importantly they want to accelerate their shift to a high-tempo, aggressive philosophy built on pressing from the front.

Significantly, that means operating with a high defensive line and in that context, getting pace into the back four is crucial.

Wright has also missed a lot of football relative to his status in the squad.

With all that in mind, you can see why a regime intent on building a sustainable operation would be open to the idea of changing direction.

Sources in the game have indicated that the club's stance is broadly similar when it comes to Tom Flanagan, should interest materialise in his signature.

Here, though, the logic may clash against Sunderland's relatively stark reality.

Callum Doyle has made a striking impression in his first two Sunderland games, but defensive options are otherwise threadbare to say the least.

Arbenit Xhemajli is making encouraging progress in his recovery from a major knee injury, but sources have at every step of the way been eager to stress the severity of the initial blow and caution against a premature return.

He could be a major player in the second half of the season, but before then caution will win the day.

The club has no senior full-backs, even if Luke O'Nien is expected to return at Harrogate Town on Saturday. Regardless of where his long-term future lies positionally, right now a return to right-back looks certain.

While Denver Hume is expected at some stage to agree a new contract, injury means he has little prospect of being involved during the opening weeks of the season.

In a stark admission on Tuesday night, Johnson said his new-look defence might not be in place until a week before the game against Wigan Athletic. He also conceded that might not happen until a fortnight later.

"We're going to have to put a few plasters over certain positions as it looks at the moment," he added.

The head coach conceded that a challenging summer market has been giving him sleepless nights.

The Black Cats are determined not to overspend this summer and they have stuck steadfastly to the belief that the latter stages of the window will provide significant opportunity.

Johnson again referenced the number of free agents who he says (along with their agents) have been slow to adapt to the new financial reality, where wages are depressed as a result of the ongoing pandemic and especially at second-tier level.

He, and Sunderland's recruitment team, believe there are bargains to be had for good-quality players in the coming weeks.

In the loan market, the expectation is that the best young talent will be available to move on loan when players from the Euros come back into their squads from summer breaks.

Right now, they are being used to keep squad numbers healthy in the early weeks of pre-season.

Those defensive gaps have left fans concerned with the new campaign just over two weeks away; fearful that Sunderland's strategy could leave them well short of the depth they need to make a strong start.

Years of disappointment mean the concern is of the wrong players brought in to plug gaps at the last minute. The Black Cats insist those days are over, but the new recruitment team understandably has to prove itself to the fanbase.

The sheer amount of work to be done means nerves are inevitable.

It also explains why, right now, letting a player of Wright's maturity and stature leave looks like a risk too far.

The transfer deadline remains some way off, though, and it is clear that at the Academy of Light they are preparing for a very busy period.

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