Phil Smith's Sunderland AFC transfer Q&A: Where the Black Cats stand, will they spend fees and what next for Elliot Embleton

The League One season is nearing and Sunderland still have much work to do in the transfer market.

Thursday, 29th July 2021, 12:45 pm

Supporters are concerned about Lee Johnson’s options in key areas of the pitch, and what it means for their promotion ambitions.

In his weeky Q&A, Phil Smith answers where he feels the club stand right now, and what might happen next...

Will this team be good enough to get out of League One?

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Sunderland are interested in Nottingham Forest full back Jordan Gabriel

My personal view is that the core of the side is good enough to win promotion.

Callum Doyle looks to be a terrific addition, though of course there are no certainties as to how a player so young will fare in league action initially.

I think Ross Stewart is going to have a good season and the options through midfield and attacking midfield as it stands are good.

Some of the football played in pre-season has been really nice to watch and I think there are signs of the attempts to get the team creating more are starting to bear fruit.

What is absolutely undeniable is that right now, the squad is not good enough to get out of League One.

That’s not a reflection of the calibre of players in the squad right now, just an obvious reflection of the gaps there are in the squad.

Clearly, it is not sustainable to be reliant on central midfielders to drop into the full back positions for any real length of time.

Lee Johnson likes to joke about playing a XI of central midfielders being his dream (and I’m here for it) but he of course knows the squad is very underpowered in some areas.

I also think there is an issue in terms of the depth at centre-half, when you consider that the team is going to play a style that relies on both a high defensive line and an ability to build play from the back.

While Stewart is bringing a different dimension to the Black Cats with his willingness and ability to stretch the play, another striker is needed to ensure there is enough goals and depth to thrive without Charlie Wyke.I’ve been encouraged by much of what I’ve seen on the pitch in pre-season, but there is no doubt that this is a massive couple of weeks for the club.

Like many I back and support entirely the move to promoting young talent (I’d love to see Dan Neil start on opening day!), but the team as a collective has to be strong enough to get out of this division.

In fairness, I think that is absolutely the new regime’s goal.

They have to deliver that over the next couple of weeks.

Are we going to buy players or will it just be freebies and loans?

A question a lot of fans would like answering, does the club have money to spend on transfer fees or is the pot empty?

Personally, I would be stunned if the window shuts without Sunderland spending fees.

There has been an interesting contrast throughout the summer whereby when you speak to people in the game, there is an expectation that Sunderland will be strong spenders for the level.

Clearly, that hasn’t really materialised in terms of fees but I do think that will change.

Though Lee Johnson has rightly mentioned the importance of the budget, that more closely relates to bringing down a wage bill that was still massive for the level last season.Part of the reason business has been largely slow so far is that the new regime has been absolutely steadfast in their determination not to overspend on wages, and that’s particularly key when it comes to free agents.

Sunderland are willing to spend, but I think it comes with very, very strict parameters.

Across the club Louis-Dreyfus has made clear he will invest, but it feels equally clear that there has to be an expectation of a return.

That’s why when it comes to fees, I’d expect any arrival to be young and with significant resale value.

That’s why, for example, they have bid a strong six-figure sum for Nottingham Forest’s Jordan Gabriel, and may go higher in the coming days and weeks.

I have also heard that they have been in talks over another young player from a Premier League academy who would likely command a seven-figure fee were he to move.

Those deals are the hardest ones to do because clearly the negotiations are much more challenging, as they are major investments over a long period of time, and they’re reliant on the selling club having what they need in their squad before sanctioning a move. That’s obviously a key part of the Gabriel puzzle, for example, as Forest are very light in that position.

So my instinct is that Sunderland’s most significant spending is still to be done.

The window might have a very different look by the end, but in fairness, it really does need to.

It’s not unreasonable at all to state that it is a long way from ideal to have no full backs nine days out from the campaign.

Work to do.

Does Stewart Donald have any say in buying and selling players?


There are certain aspects that the other shareholders have a say in as a result of the agreement struck with Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, but as the majority shareholder it is the 24-year-old who drives and is ultimately responsible for footballing strategy.

Juan Sartori is on the board and so has input in that regard, but Donald is not (though his views will obviously be represented).

Targets are identified on a collaborative basis between head of recruitment Stuart Harvey, head coach Lee Johnson and Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman.

The data analysis plays a big part in that, alongside the more traditional scouting.

Speakman leads negotiations with other clubs and targets, while the ultimate decision in terms of what fee/spend is sanctioned will of course always rest with Louis-Dreyfus.

The board and ownership group will of course be accountable for the club’s progress and decisions as a whole, but it’s Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman who are ultimately primarily responsible for Sunderland’s progress on the pitch (in my view, at least).

There are clearly still some unresolved questions in terms of Madrox, the ownership structure and in particular where their stated commitment to settling the parachute payment issue currently stands.

But on the pitch, this will be the Louis-Dreyfus vision.

I do think, generally, the communication around the deal that Louis-Dreyfus did to buy the club has not been transparent enough, and it’s clearly not helped in terms of the anxiety many fans have had this summer.

How many signings do you see us realistically making this summer?

It will be dependent on further outgoings.

If the current squad was to stay as it was, then I would expect the club to recruit two/three full-backs, depending on whether Denver Hume agrees a new deal.

I’d expect them to sign another centre-back and another striker, and then potentially another midfield/forward player.

That would bring us up five/six, which is broadly what Lee Johnson said he was after following the recent draw with York City.

However, there’s obviously a lot of other variables that could come into play between now and the end of the window.

There is strong interest in Bailey Wright, and the club’s executive regime are open to doing a deal if the terms are right. Wright is in the last year of his contract and so if there was scope to accelerate the squad’s overhaul, they would be minded to take it.

Johnson, clearly, has a concern over his options at the moment and also rates Wright highly. He sees him as one of his leaders off the pitch and that obviously complicates matters in terms of an outgoing.

Were he to leave he would have to be replaced, and at this stage I would be very surprised if an exit was sanctioned without another deal at least being close.

Elliot Embleton, as I’ll go into in the next Q, is also a player who has interest from other clubs.

He would absolutely need replacing were he to leave and the same applies to Will Grigg.

So I’d say that Sunderland need five, but that could rise to eight depending on how things pan out with the current squad.

Where would you say Elliot Embleton fits into the picture now Alex Pritchard is here?

I don’t think Pritchard’s arrival necessarily threatens Embleton’s position, or at least it certainly shouldn’t.

When Pritchard is fully fit they will be competing for that number ten spot for the most part, I think.

But in all likelihood Pritchard is a good few weeks away from being considered as a potential starting option in league games and so Embleton has a great chance to make that attacking midfield role his own.

His form has been one of the highlights of the pre-season programme and he looks ready.

One of the key advantages he has is his versatility, which means he should be more than capable of playing off either flank in Johnson’s system.

The key question of course is to what extent Blackpool’s strong interest in a permanent deal materialises.

Sunderland have said all along that there intention is to have Embleton in the squad this season, but given that the attacking midfielder has a year left on his contract, they may feel it is in their interests to sell if the price is right and there seems to little prospect of reaching agreement on a new deal over the next few months.

That would, for me at least, be a bitter disappointment and one of the biggest mistakes of the new era should it happen.

For a homegrown youngster to leave without us seeing any real run of games would be a real blow, and let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Lots of talking regarding full backs, however very little regarding a striker which I feel we desperately need. Any indication that we are in the market or intend to bring one in?

Lee Johnson was asked after the Harrogate Town win whether he was concerned about being too reliant on Ross Stewart as his main striking option.

In his reply, he pointed out that while Will Grigg is at the club he expects him to play his part, and Aiden O’Brien is a player who we’ve seen forge a good partnership with Charlie Wyke in the past, for example.

Nevertheless, his response also made absolutely clear that he hopes to add another forward to his ranks.

So you can be sure that the club are monitoring the market and that another striker is part of the business they are looking to do before the window shuts.

If Grigg does depart, then it may even be that they recruit further beyond that.

Clearly the striker’s future is a significant part of the puzzle but regardless of what happens there, it seems Johnson and the club are looking to do more.

As you say, defence is the biggest concern right now but it’s not the only position Sunderland are looking at.

What’s the Arbenit Xhemajli injury/fitness update? Any chance he starts the season fully fit or is he still a way off yet? Really excited to see him play a part this campaign

He’s making really good progress but it will be a while before he is a realistic contender to start games on a regular basis.

It was a really, really severe knee injury that he suffered and right from the off, it has been stressed that the club will have to be very careful in how they manage him.

There’s no prospect of him being fit for the start of the season but he has made strides forward, and was able to be part of some aspects of the recent training camp in Scotland.

Lee Johnson has said that he doesn’t we can make any real judgements on Xhemajli until the turn of the year.

I’d expect him to start building up towards a return before then, through a combination of U23 games and perhaps some involvement in the Papa John’s Trophy, for example.

The hope is that he can be an important player through the second half of the campaign, and like you, I’m looking forward to watching him in action.

From the brief glimpses we’ve had he looked like a good find.

Wigan and Ipswich seem to be the runaway leaders in quality acquisitions (so far) in this transfer window. How far ahead do you see the above teams man for man in a starting eleven come the 7th of August?

Great question.

It is worth remembering just how far behind Wigan Athletic are doing their business from, given the challenges they faced last season as a result of off-field uncertainty.

So while the business they have done so far this summer has been mightily impressive (and expensive), they have a long way to go in terms of squad depth.

Like Sunderland, they still have a lot of work to do.

Ipswich have undoubtedly done some good business, and look to be ahead of the pack as it stands.

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