Kristjaan Speakman explains why Sunderland didn't sign a striker on deadline day after Ross Stewart injury blow
Speakman has admitted that he was left ‘frustrated’ that Sunderland were unable to complete a deal that would have offered valuable cover and competition for Joe Gelhardt.
Fans were left frustrated by the inactivity in forward areas after Ross Stewart suffered a season-ending achilles injury at Craven Cottage days earlier.
“I was personally frustrated and a little bit disappointed - because we felt we were in position to come out of the window in a really positive place,” Speakman said.
“Our ambition was to come out of deadline day with two fit centre-forwards and we didn’t manage that.
“But I don’t think that should negate from all the work that has gone on behind the scenes by so many people to get us in such a good position. It will drive myself and everyone else to work even harder and smarter to progress and improve this team further.”
In an interview with The Echo, Speakman opened up on the chain of events and what comes next…
WHAT HAPPENED ON DEADLINE DAY?
Following Everton’s shock decision to recall Ellis Simms on the eve of the window, Speakman confirmed that the club were looking at adding both proven competition to Stewart and a younger striker who they could develop over time.
When those latter bids were unsuccessful and the club landed their key loan target in Joe Gelhardt, the recruitment and coaching team decided they were relatively happy to leave the window as it was.
Speakman also insisted that the club had not gambled on waiting for the return of Simms to be sanctioned.
“You always set off with the ambition not to do anything on deadline day if possible,” Speakman said.
“Going into the Fulham game we were really comfortable having brought Joe into the mix. We weren’t anticipating doing another deal at that point, albeit there were other things that we were still looking at. It’s difficult I think at that point getting in a third striker who is comfortable behind Joffy and Ross. We were looking at some different profiles to potentially add for the future, but we were comfortable.
“That has obviously changed by half time at Fulham when we have a chat as a recruitment team and it’s clear we have to readdress it. You then have three days to try and do something.
“In that time, the opportunities there that we felt would either maintain or enhance the quality we’ve got in the team didn’t materialise, and there are a lot of factors within that. And there were some that as a club, across the board and the recruitment and the coaching staff and Tony in particular, we didn’t feel they would enhance the squad even as that additional nine.
“With Ellis, you can’t rely on other organisations and so for us, we went into deadline day thinking that there were four players who we felt we had a chance of signing on loan.
“Ultimately, they opted to stay at their clubs or ultimately weren’t allowed to leave their club. Ellis was one of those players.
“We always saw Ellis as a bonus from the start of the window because we understood where Everton were at. I spoke to Ellis personally a week ago and explained that to him because of the regard we had for him.”
THE LONGER-TERM PICTURE UP FRONT
It has been a source of frustration for supporters that the club over two windows hasn’t been able to acquire the depth that many other Championship sides have up front, and also that some of the succession planning visible in other areas of the squad hasn’t been executed up front.
As it stands, Ross Stewart is the only striker under contract for next season.
Speakman conceded that being unable to build that depth is a frustration for the club and requires addressing, having previously noted that many of the club’s most talented academy forwards who would now be in the mix left under previous regimes.
“When you’ve got depth and you play predominantly with one [striker], you have to then manage the others [who aren’t playing],” he said.
“Some other clubs may have more and struggle with the dynamic, and that can also impact the results and performances.
“The profile of player we’re talking about doesn’t want to sit on the bench - there are some of the very top clubs in the world that operate with one, potentially two centre forwards.
“We absolutely want to have more depth, but our starting point was that we didn’t have a significant number of registered players in that position. We’ve had to try and find new players to come in and we’ve certainly tried to do it - we made bids for permanent acquisitions early in this window but they aren’t easy to do in January.
“In the summer we had a wide number of positions to improve and up front, we weren’t able to get the depth we would have liked. It’s hard to do that in January and naturally we have to look to the summer to address that, because we feel we’ve got that quality and depth in other areas of the pitch.
“We’ve 100% been trying to add that depth [up front] over the last two windows. I do think it’s difficult from where we started to address every area immediately. We’re really pleased with our wide players, our creative midfielders, defence…
“Unfortunately the piece of the jigsaw where we don’t quite have that depth is the centre-forward, and that’s certainly something we are aware of. I don’t think there were a large number of strikers who moved in the January window, it’s not a position where there is as much availability, and it’s something which we know we have to find a way of addressing moving forward.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Stewart’s absence, it was put to Speakman, also leaves Sunderland short of a focal point for others to play off - and a lack of tactical variety as a result.
“Maybe there’s a misalignment here in terms of what we’re trying to acquire,” Speakman responded.
“That focal point you refer to is not a big requirement for the team we’re building and developing.
“Joe Gelhardt, for example, is totally aligned with how we’re trying to play in terms of what we need for a number nine. When the conversation was around Gelhardt, every single member of the recruitment and coaching staff was absolutely set on trying to sign him.
“We want to have variety, absolutely, but they also have to fit our playing style. As much as we talk about the in possession and that target man if you like, the link play, you’ve also got to look at what we do out of possession. The way we play requires the ability to get about the pitch, to apply pressure in the right areas and to turn the ball over to create opportunities [that way].
“Finding the player who can do all that is not easy.”
Sunderland’s season so far has surpassed expectations and for many, the team’s proximity to the top six offered an opportunity to push for strength in depth and bolster those promotion ambitions.
Speakman rejected the suggestion that the failure to replace Stewart was a question of either finance or ambition, saying the club were prepared to sanction significant loan additions.
“We have pushed our structure and we absolutely will do it when we feel it’s necessary,” he said.
“You have a strategy, a plan and a way that you go about things, but you have to be smart enough to deviate.
“Not signing another number nine was nothing to do with finance or ambition, we pushed as hard as we possibly could. For several potential loan players, they would have been big temporary transfers for us. Ultimately, their club didn’t let them out or in some circumstances, the players themselves decided they didn’t want to drop into the Championship.
“We’re very ambitious about where we want to get to and we have an ambitious owner, we just want to execute it in a specific way.
“There are probably 14 teams in the mix for a play-off spot and we’re right in there.”
THE MIDFIELD CONUNDRUM
The other position where there was a sense that Sunderland should recruit further was in defensive midfield, given that Corry Evans is out for the season with an ACL injury.
Tony Mowbray had expressed concern about the inexperienced and the balance in that part of the pitch as a result.
“Yeah, look, losing Corry is a big one for us,” Speakman explained, asked why they hadn’t ultimately recruited further.
“If there’s an opportunity to acquire someone who fits in that scenario then you look at it, but at the same time we’ve also committed to providing opportunities to young players and we have a lot of talent.
“Edouard needs to play, Dan Neil needs for his career to step up and lead, Abdoullah has to step in the team and show a consistency. We need to see all these things so then you can make the right judgement on how the squad evolves.
“We have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. It’s easy for Tony not to put Riggy on when a tie against Fulham is in the balance, really easy not to bring him on when you go 1-0 down to Shrewsbury - but we’ve committed to this strategy. We want Edouard to play, we want to give Pierre [Ekwah] opportunities.”
But is the point not that Evans’ discipline and role allows those midfielders to thrive in front of him?
“Edouard has played the majority of his career as a six/eight and Dan has done that job incredibly well of late,” Speakman replied.
“These players have got to evolve and take on that responsibility.
“We’re trying to grow and evolve, and we’ve got to give these opportunities. There is definitely risk in that - we accept that.
“Pierre can absolutely play in a defensive midfield role, though we accept he’s starting out in his professional career.
“Our structure is designed to get in these players and give them chances. We’ve got to keep believing and trusting in these players, who have performed really well and brought us so far.”
Sunderland’s deadline-day pursuits were themselves an admission that more depth up front was needed.
So what happens if Gelhardt were to pick up an injury? It's the question for many fans ahead of the return to Championship and FA Cup action.
“To get to where we want to get to, we’re going to have to overcome various challenges and we have to have a culture where we embrace the challenge and find solutions,” Speakman said.
“We’ve to be a resilient organisation.
“I understand there’ll be comparisons made in terms of our XG or our points-per-game [during, we produced some good performances when we didn’t play with a striker. We played Fulham last week for the best part of 80 minutes without a striker and performed extremely well.
“We’ve got an extremely versatile and talented set of forward players and we’ll find solutions. “We’ve done it a lot in terms of defence when we had to, where we changed our shape and pattern, and we’ll do the same at the front end.”