Jack Ross gives transfer update and the key areas Sunderland must strengthen this summer
Jack Ross has identified pace and strength as two key attributes he is still looking to add to his Sunderland squad this summer.
The Black Cats have so far made two additions to the side that fell agonisingly short of promotion last season.
Conor McLaughlin arrived to replace Adam Matthews at right-back, while Lee Burge was signed from Coventry City to provide necessary back-up for Jon McLaughlin. Both were free agents.
Ross is hoping to continue improving his squad before the window shuts at the end of August following a long debrief into the last campaign.
Crucially, he believes the team simply must defend better and key to that is adding that extra athleticism to the squad.
Further defensive additions are therefore possible, while the Black Cats are also keen on energetic midfielder George Dobson from Walsall.
“We reflected on last season and why we fell short in losing the play-off final and missing out on promotion, and one of the factors was that we didn’t keep enough clean sheets,” Ross said.
“That’s as a whole team and as a whole group, and there’s different factors for that, not just individual performances.
“We know that we have to defend better as a team this season, whether that’s strengthening the personnel or changing the way we play.
“In the summer we spent a lot of time looking at the attributes that we were maybe missing in the squad as well,” he added.
“So as much as strengthening positions, Conor McLaughlin being an obvious one because we lost Adam Matthews, we’ve looked at increasing the strength and pace we had in our squad.
“We’ve got some good footballers but those two attributes are necessary I think not just in League One but throughout modern football.
“We’ve tried to do that, we’re still trying to do that and it’s a key factor in what we do in the coming weeks until the end of August as well.”
Sunderland kept 13 clean sheets in the regular season last time out, the same number as Oxford United and Burton Albion.
Seven teams kept more, and the Black Cats lagged well behind the three teams who eventually went on to claim promotion.
Charlton Athletic kept 18 before going on to beat Sunderland in the play-off final, while automatic promotion winners Luton Town and Barnsley kept 20 and 21 respectively.
Ross, though, faces a balancing act and says that players must move on if others are brought in.
As well as the departures of Adam Matthews and Robbin Ruiter at the end of their contracts, Reece James has moved to Doncaster Rovers and Lee Cattermole left the club by mutual consent.
The Black Cats boss is working with a bigger squad than this time last year and has been told that any futher additions must be supplemented by a departure.
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“In terms of where we are squad wise, with numbers we’re a lot healthier than we were this time last season,” he said.
“We have enough numbers in the group to satisfy a lot of positions.
“However, as always, we’re always looking to improve the quality. It’s not easy because we’ve got good players at the club already, but we’ve worked hard to identify those that have the quality and fit within the structure of the club now.
“The reality at the moment is that we’re in a position where in order to bring ones in, we need to move ones on.
“That’s not always easy to do, so I’m satisfied with what we’ve got at the moment, but looking to improve if the right player not just becomes available but fits the structure of the club.”
Ross began the last pre-season campaign with a threadbare squad, the travelling party on the training camp in Portugal supplemented heavily by largely unproven academy products.
This time he is working with a significantly larger group and with a reasonable element of continuity from last season.
He hopes that will allow his side to develop a far stronger playing identity and style this season, something he believes that other teams were able to build easier last time out.
“Some of the work we’ve done to date, and lies ahead in the next couple of weeks, is being able to play in a certain way and having flexibility within that,” he said.
“The teams that did last season did well, being able to change system but [still] have that clear identity if you like.
“Again we’ve looked long and hard in the summer at what we can improve upon because ultimately we fell a little bit short.
“Collectively we have to improve and everything points to us hopefully being able to do that, because we are in a better position than where we were last pre-season.”
Sunderland will again have five pre-season friendlies this summer, including one behind closed doors at the Academy of Light this Saturday.
Ross is confident that will be sufficient but says he will ensure all players get the minutes they require before the visit of Oxford United to the Stadium of Light on August 3rd.
“Following the South Shields game on Thursday, we will play on Saturday and then go out to Portugal for two games, then Heerenveen at the Stadium of Light, making five games in all - the same as last summer,” he said.
"In fact, we only ended up with four-and-a-half games last year because the Middlesbrough game was washed out.
"And there is scope in the lead-up to the Oxford game, should there be any players who we think have missed out on minutes due to niggling injuries or what have you, we could have another game in that midweek.
"But we are quite comfortable with where we are at.”