Phil Smith's tour diary: Sunderland's summer of quiet evolution leaves Portugal squad looking healthy

It had looked for much of the summer like there would be yet more upheaval at Sunderland.

By Phil Smith
Thursday, 18 July, 2019, 12:06

New majority shareholders, new director of football, a new structure.

Those talks unquestionably left Sunderland with much to do in little time this summer and the lack of an eventual deal without doubt raises many questions about the long-term.

For one, Charlie Methven has spoken openly about the need for added investment at some stage and that talks witll therefore continue in the background.

The questions about long-term footballing strategy are also pressing and no doubt connected to the previous point.

The short-term effect, however, is that Sunderland are belatedly attacking a season from a position of relative continuity.

At a club like this, that feels somewhat revolutionary in itself.

When Sunderland last arrived at this Portugese resort last summer, Jack Ross was hauling together a squad by any means necessary.

Jack Ross is stepping up pre-season preparations with his team in Portugal

His travelling party was padded out with young players from the academy and even then, the disparity in profile and experience in his squad was unprecedented.

This time, his squad has a far more balanced feel.

The arrival of Jordan Willis and Conor McLaughlin give that defence a far more robust feel and there will be excitement at the prospect of Ethan Robson and Elliot Embleton getting a chance to shine.

It’s not to say, of course, that Sunderland are ready to launch an assault on the League One title.

The forward line looks balanced if Duncan Watmore is fit and firing but underpowered if not. Sunderland need major improvements from Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke. Ongoing transfer talk suggests Ross is not absolutely happy with the balance of his midfield just now.

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The Black Cats have much to prove and much work to do, and while questions over the long-term direction of the club remain vital and valid, it is hard not to believe they are in a far superior position to this time last year.

In strictly relative terms, they are probably in a better position than the last time they visited Albufeira, too.

The team for their first game of that trip in 2014?

Dixon, Cartwright, Ferguson, Beadling, McNamee (Roberge), Agnew (Ba 46), Smith (Bridcutt 46), Honeyman, Lawson (Mavrias 46), Watmore (N'Diaye 46), Mandron.

Gus Poyet had taken a youthful squad to Portugal but the gaps in the squad who had so brilliantly ended the previous season were already glaring.

A far superior side lost 1-0 to Nacional days later, and it was already obvious that Marcos Alonso, Fabio Borini and Ki, all vital players, were not being not replaced properly. Another deadline day trolley dash, this one a disaster (Ricky Alvarez).

Sometimes, quiet evolution really is revolutionary.

Especially at Sunderland.

*The Sunderland squad arrived in Portugal yesterday and the standard initiation songs took place last night.

If you’re after a treat, check out Max Power’s instagram for a clip of Benji Kimpioka singing Black and Gold, the Sam Sparro hit from 2008 that most of us had forgotten existed.

Kimipioka’s effort is impressive.

Power, meanwhile, has been captured on Sunderland's twitter page rifling an exceptional volley into the top corner in training this morning.

He’s expected to miss the start of the season with a nasty ankle injury picked up in that play-off final defeat but his recovery seems to be going well.