The fierce battle for Sunderland's midfield places assessed and who is leading the way
The arrival of George Dobson comes as a significant boost for Jack Ross, who made the energetic midfielder one of his top transfer targets for the summer.
It also brings yet more competition to a fiercely competitive area of the pitch for Sunderland, leading to plenty of debate as to whether an outgoing could be on the cards.
Lee Cattermole has already left, but both Elliot Embleton and Ethan Robson have returned from loan desperate to prove their worth.
Finding the right partnerships will be key for Ross, ensuring his side have the quality on the ball they need to create chances, while having the strength and athleticism to compete in a notoriously physical league.
With the start of the season just over a week away, we run through each candidate and where they stand, in ascending order, ahead of the visit of Oxford United….
Ross has big hopes for Mumba but wants him to find and develop his best position in the U23 set up for now.
He will still occasionally train with the first team, and may well feature in the EFL Trophy if international commitments allow.
Ross then plans to make a decision at the end of the year as to whether he joins the senior set up permanently, or goes out on a first loan.
Signed to bolster the U23 ranks but made a real impression in Portugal, taking his chance to impress with his energy and intelligence.
Ross wants him to keep pushing for senior inclusion and also raised the possibility of a loan at some stage. GEORGE HONEYMANRoss has no plans to change his club captain, who he rates so highly for his professionalism off the pitch and his work rate on it. Touch and go to start the season with a knee problem and that lack of match fitness may leave him with some catching up to do.
Dobson perfectly fits the mould of what Sunderland are trying to do this summer in the transfer market. He is experienced, but of an age where he can still improve and grow his value significantly. He also brings added athleticism to a side that often lacked it last season. He played mostly as a defensive midfielder last year, but Ross sees him as someone who will be far more effective further forward, particularly if the Black Cats continue to press high as they have done in pre-season. Short on minutes after this transfer pursuit and will need time to understand his role in the new system.
Did exceptionally well to get back fit well ahead of schedule, and could get more minutes on Saturday night. Still slightly behind many of his team-mates in terms of minutes but brings something different with his height and strength.
Looks sharp and ready to impress, having worked to improve his physicality for League One. Also has an advantage in being a natural left-footer in a squad that doesn’t have many. May not get the nod for Oxford but has a great chance over the course of the season.
Started pre-season with uncertainty over his future but has signed a new deal and thrived in the games so far. One more good showing against Heerenveen could make his case for inclusion in the starting XI impossible to ignore. Such is his quality on the ball, however, Ross may believe he is best suited as one of the front three. DYLAN McGEOUCH
McGeouch had at the start of the summer looked like a candidate to free up space and funds after a difficult first season. Ross firmly backed him, however, and McGeouch spoke recently of his absolute determination to be a Sunderland success. Has played like it, too, tenacious and with good vision. Has had plenty of pre-season minutes and so has given himself every chance.
Leadbitter has played the most minutes in pre-season and looked in very good shape ahead of the new campaign. His ability to play those passes into the wide areas will be vital for the Black Cats and such is his experience and leadership, it would be a surprise to see him left out on the opening day.
And other ones to consider……
Dobson arrives with a similar profile to O’Nien. Lots of energy and promise, a good number of league games already played but plenty to learn about the game.
Many would like to see O’Nien further forward and at the start of pre-season, Ross suggested that it was something he was considering.
So far, however, he has featured as a wing-back in a role that seems perfectly suited to him in the new system.
Ross has been picking his teams to ensure everyone gets the minutes they require, rather than focusing necessarily on which position they play, but such is O’Nien’s energy, it would be a big call not to pick him in the position he has made his own of late.
After an excellent cameo from the bench against Accrington Stanley last season, Jack Ross memorably said that playing at that standard, Maguire would always get in his team.
He has a lot of competition now, particularly given the craft and vision Embleton has played with.
More likely to play in one of those inside forward roles but could be squeezed by the midfielders pushing for minutes behind him.