Phil Smith: Inside Sunderland's summer transfer strategy and the key business still to be done

Lee Johnson said Callum Doyle's first move on the training ground was to stride past a number of his new team-mates before firing in an ambitious shot on goal.

Monday, 19th July 2021, 4:30 pm

As a first impression, it was one that raised eyebrows and in the best possible way.

At Tynecastle he repeated the trick.

Under pressure down Sunderland s left flank, his first move was to bring the ball out of danger and relieve the pressure with an inch-perfect through ball down the line.

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Early days, and there were moments where the wily Liam Boyce caused problems, but that this kid can play is obvious.

Doyle's arrival on Friday night had helped, at least in part, to shift the mood on Wearside.

It had been an often tense summer on Wearside, with news on both contract negotiations and new signings generally sparse.

Signing number three, as well as the arrival of a generally well-received new home kit, perhaps allowed supporters to look towards the new campaign with a little more optimism.

Callum Doyle during his Sunderland debut at Tynecastle

Or, at the very least, look to the next fortnight in the hope that plans are starting to come together.

After the unveiling of the new 80's-inspired kit, supporters responded to a poll asking how they felt about the new campaign.

Far from scientific, of course, but the consensus from the 1,137 who responded gives an insight into the general mood on Wearside as pre-season steps up.

8.4% said they were very optimistic about the new campaign, while 7.6% have major reservations about the way their team is shaping up for the campaign.

Head Coach Lee Johnson

It felt telling that the rest were divided between feeling quite optimistic (35.9%) and fairly pessimistic (48.2%). That feels a neat summation of where Sunderland's squad is at, with undoubted quality in some areas and glaring gaps in others.

Had the poll been taken after the comfortable 2-0 over Hearts, a few may perhaps have nudged into the former category.

Doyle caught the eye with a hugely accomplished debut, and in the forward areas Sunderland posed an almost constant threat.

Lynden Gooch looked sharp, Sunderland's midfield pressed well and Aiden McGeady showed his ruthless touch has not deserted him.

Most encouraging was not the win but the manner of the attacking play that forced it.

Speaking afterwards, Johnson noted that the move leading to the penalty for the opener is exactly the kind of football he wants supporters to get used to this season.

There were two quick, forward and incisive passes from Doyle and McGeady, and most importantly there was there run in behind from Stewart.

Throughout the contest there were signs of Sunderland looking to be more ambitious in their passing; Elliot Embleton unfortunate that his second-half play in particular did not yield at least one assist.

"I was happy to see some fluid movements," Johnson said afterwards.

"We will have that quick passing this year, no doubt about that.

"Embleton, McGeady, Pritchard, we have the players with the ability to do that.

"It's so important our forwards are ready for that this season. Ross did it for the penalty and I expect fans to see a lot of that from us this year."

The McGeady-Wyke partnership was spectacularly successful last year, but there is a recognition that Sunderland need to diversify their threat and particularly on home turf, where their record last season was poor, that means more bravery in possession.

Though the second half understandably began to fizzle out as the multitude of changes took hold, Sunderland were good to watch.

That there remains significant nervousness in the Sunderland fanbase is an understandable reflection of the fact that even in this relatively comfortable win, there were signs of significant issues still to be addressed.

The Black Cats did look a little open at times, their vulnerability to the counter understandable when you consider availability meant they played with an unusually attacking midfield two of Dan Neil and Embleton.

Both were excellent, particularly the former in the way he forced errors through his pressing, but clearly in the campaign proper there is a greater balance to be struck.

That, in fairness, should not be too difficult to achieve.

Corry Evans will provide a natural anchor, while Luke O'Nien is expected to return from a shoulder injury at Harrogate.

A new arrival at right back should also free Carl Winchester to compete in his natural position.

It's those full back positions that are clearly the biggest concern for fans (and those at the club) right now. Winchester and Dyce did admirably well on Saturday, but Johnson wants two left backs as the former West Brom youngster is seen right now as very talented but with much work to do in the U23 set up.

Though there is hope that Denver Hume will commit his future to the club, the hamstring injury which ended his campaign at Lincoln makes him a major doubt for the start of the campaign regardless.

It was little surprise that much of the threat Hearts enjoyed came through the wide areas.

Even at centre-back, it is clear that despite Doyle's excellent start, another signing is needed.

More generally, there is a feeling that as of yet Sunderland haven't quite shown their hand as such, it is hard to gauge how strong they will be for the promotion push.

Alex Pritchard represented an ambitious move, Evans brings Championship pedigree and Doyle has clearly started well.

But there is an obvious desire to see the uncertainty over the current strike force at the club settled, and for Wyke to be replaced convincingly even if Stewart is to have a major role this season.

Johnson knows and understands that concern, stating after the game that the ideal scenario was clearly to have his group in place just about from day one.

He has accepted, though, that Sunderland will not overspend this summer and that means being patient.

Most tellingly, he has accepted that this could mean he is making 'unexpected' selections when the campaign begins in earnest.

There will be an interesting contrast there, as Wigan Athletic, alongside Ipswich Town, are the two clubs who have been most active in signing up proven League One talent early.

Their investment has been significant, and their strategy similar to that which Sunderland were at one stage pursuing last summer.

Then, players like Luke Garbutt, Scott Fraser and Armand Gnanduillet were all on the radar until the salary cap forced a change in direction.

This time around the Black Cats are determined to do things differently, with a greater emphasis on data and analytics to supplement more traditional scouting.

Most importantly, they have committed totally to the principle that they are better waiting for their top targets even if that means showing patience in a market slowed by COVID-19 and EURO 2020.

With that in mind, that many fans feel Sunderland are not yet automatic promotion contenders is understandable.

The Black Cats look to have taken some positive steps forward over the last week, but as Johnson himself said, there is a 'lot of work to do'.

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