The January window Q&A: Where Sunderland stand, what to expect and the issues Lee Johnson has been facing
It’s been a quiet window across League One so far, but Sunderland remain hopeful of making further additions before the end of the month.
A disappointing 2-1 defeat to Plymouth Argyle underlined the need for strengthening, and supporters are keen to see Lee Johnson supported in the push for promotion.
So where do the Black Cats stand and what happens next?
We run you through all they key questions here...
What is Lee Johnson trying to add to his squad?
Ideally, Johnson would like to make two additions before the window shuts.
The head coach has talked of finding a ‘different dynamic’ in the final third, and wants to find a player capable of stretching the opposition defence throughout games. Pace is a desired attribute, but Johnson outlined earlier this week that most important of all is the willingness and physical capacity to make those runs in behind and recover quickly enough to keep doing it for 90 minutes.
It’s a big part of his wider plan to help vary his team’s attacking play, particularly at home where they have struggled to break teams down.
Increasingly a priority is adding a new left-back.
It was not a position on Johnson’s radar when the window opened, but a recurrence of a hamstring injury has left Denver Hume facing two months on the sidelines and Johnson worried about the balance of his side.
Callum McFadzean is more suited to playing as a wing-back, and defensively the Black Cats have been caught out down that flank in Hume’s absence.
Johnson has strong options to stand in, such as Dion Sanderson and Conor McLaughlin (though he is out for a month). Tom Flanagan could also step in there.
The issue is that Johnson feels playing a right-footed player in this position is detrimental to the attacking threat of his side.
Take, for example, the 0-0 draw with Northampton Town. Sanderson played well, but the Black Cats were unable to exploit the natural overlaps created by Aiden McGeady occupying a more central position. This is key as all of Johnson’s options on the left wing are technically accomplished players, but ones who want to occupy central areas.
So at both ends of the pitch, he needs a natural left-back to make either of his currently preferred systems function to their maximum potential.
Will he get both?
After the win over AFC Wimbledon, Johnson said there were no guarantees.
He said he thought they would land one, and was hopeful that they could land two. Part of that caution simply reflected the fact that negotiations are not part of his brief in the new structure.
He has a heavy role in identifying targets, but the deals are done between CEO Jim Rodwell and Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman.
It’s a challenging window for two reasons.
One, the club’s recruitment department has been threadbare since Madrox’s arrival, when operations were cut back considerably. This has left Johnson and Speakman with essentially no historic data and research to work with.
Johnson, Speakman and Rodwell are confident their contacts in the game mean they are across who is available, but it is nevertheless a challenge.
The salary cap rules are also an issue and Johnson has already outlined this is particularly crucial when it comes to adding a striker.
This is the position where finding a player who fits in the required wage structure is challenging.
This is something that Championship managers have openly discussed; outlining how the rules mean that it is difficult to offload their fringe players to the third tier as clubs at the top of League One simply don’t have the capacity to finance it.
It’s why Johnson said that after Carl Winchester signed he would likely pivot towards loans for U21 players who are exempt from the cap.
Sunderland are ‘in the mix’ for loan deals, but clubs often wait until later in the month to let players go, when they have a clearer idea of their cup commitments etc.
Nothing appears imminent, but Johnson has stressed that this can change quickly.
Can Sunderland actually sign any over 21s under the salary cap rules right now?
Sunderland are close to the limit, both in terms of wages and the squad cap.
They could of course leave a senior player out of their squad to get around that particular issue, but the wage aspect is far harder to navigate.
Johnson says he believes there is a small amount of ‘wriggle room’ for the club in terms of wages, but it is clear they are not in a position to make any significant wage commitments.
This explains why loans are on the agenda.
Why don’t they move players on to free up room?
It’s an option, but the practicalities are complex.
First and foremost, Johnson is managing some injury concerns in the forward areas and that means it’s hard to see any outgoing business there. Will Grigg’s knee issue is not as bad as first feared, but he seems unlikely to be fit this month and there are concerns over Danny Graham.
Even if fit, there are question marks over whether any League One side could put together the kind of package that would make any deal worthwhile to Sunderland.
This is because the complex salary cap rules mean that just offloading a player does not mean you can simply go and spend their wage elsewhere.
Any contracts signed before the rules were put in place this summer are being counted at a calculated League One average, rather than their full value.
This means the process around creating room for incomings is complex, and Johnson has already said that some of the avenues the black Cats have tried to explore in this regard have essentially been blocked.
In other areas of the pitch, there aren’t too many positions where there are obviously over 21 players not part of Johnson’s plans.
George Dobson appears to be one, but he has rejected the loan proposals on the table and so at this stage, looks set to stay.
So outgoings are an option actively being considered by Sunderland, but it’s not a straightforward process.
One thing to keep an eye on is that one of Johnson’s earliest observations ahead of this window opening was that the club’s contractual situation (around 20 players see their deals expire in the summer) made them vulnerable to late bids.
There has been no sign of that yet, but it’s one way in which the picture of the window could quickly change.
Would the approval of the takeover change anything?
It’s unlikely to change things a great deal and that has certainly been the strong impression that Johnson has given.
What it could potentially do is give Sunderland the option of recruiting players who will command a transfer fee, as this is not included in the cap.
The issue of wages would still be an issue, though.
The takeover being approved is key for the club for so many reasons and in so many departments, but the January window is one area where instant transformation is unlikely.
Will Dion Sanderson stay to complete the season?
Cardiff City reportedly tried to swoop for Sanderson earlier in the window but Johnson has been relaxed whenever asked about the situation.
At one stage in the campaign, it looked very much as if Sanderson would return to Wolves in this window.
Despite widespread surprise and enthusiasm when the Black Cats signed him on deadline day (he was only available as a Championship move fell through), gametime was limited and Wolves were understandably frustrated.
Johnson quickly established that he wanted to keep Sanderson and so held positive talks with Wolves.
Though not initially involved in Johnson’s first teams, the head coach convinced Wolves that the fixture schedule would present opportunities and that his development would be well served by staying on Wearside.
With Jordan Willis managing a knee problem and other injuries hampering the Black Cats defence, Johnson is already beginning to be proved right on that front.
Sanderson himself has said he is happy to stay.
Wolves still have the recall option, so the issue is not settled definitively, but it does not appear to be a concern for Johnson.
Who will be sent out on loan?
Johnson is at this stage reluctant to loan out Dan Neil.
The Black Cats are monitoring the ankle injury he picked up last week and more broadly, the head coach is unsure that sending him to the National League would best suit his development.
Sunderland don’t see a League Two loan as an option right now as they want the protection of being able to recall him if needed. In a COVID-affected season, it doesn’t take a major stretch of the imagination to see a scenario where he would be needed.
It’s a situation that could change as the month develops, with Johnson weighing up the balance between getting gametime for the player, and also working with him closely so that he can get a strong understanding of what will be required of him in the long run.
Elsewhere, the most likely candidate for a loan at this stage would be talented goalkeeper Anthony Patterson, who Johnson rates highly.
Even if Johnson was to land both his ideal targets, is that going to be enough for promotion?
Johnson has regularly talked up the strength of his squad overall, and has insisted that at this level at least it’s simply about adding those attributes to get the balance right.
Clearly, concerns will persist over whether Sunderland have the goals in the squad to go on the kind of sustained run of wins they need.
Jack Diamond has brought some much needed dynamism and variety in the wide areas, but in the long term you suspect that’s an area Johnson would still like a lot more in his ilk.
The onus, too, will be on Carl Winchester to bring some creativity to central midfield, another attribute that at times has seemed to be lacking.
Even with two additions, it’s clear that success this season will demand an improvement right across the pitch from where the Black Cats have been for much of the current campaign.