The position-by-position review of Sunderland's strengths and weaknesses after deadline day reshuffle

Four in, five out.

Tuesday, 2nd February 2021, 10:00 am
Elliot Embleton completed a loan move to Blackpool on deadline day

A busy end to the January window saw Lee Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman begin their overhaul of the Sunderland squad.

So are the Black Cats stronger, and what areas might leave fans with some concern?

GOALKEEPERS

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Anthony Patterson would ideally have landed a first loan move but Johnson understandably opted against it, concerned that not being able to recall the youngster from a League Two side could leave him vulnerable.

Jon McLaughlin’s consistency remains a miss for the Black Cats, and that leaves it an area of some concern.

A summer overhaul is likely, with Remi Matthews struggling to make an impact since his arrival.

Lee Burge’s record this season has been steady and Sunderland need him to have a strong few months.

DEFENCE

IN: Vokins

OUT: Feeney

One of the most important decisions in this department was made even before the window opened.

Wolves had been frustrated with Dion Sanderson’s game time since his arrival but Lee Johnson made an early call that he wanted to keep the youngster, and convinced his parent club that there would be minutes on offer between now and the end of the season.

It leaves the head coach with four strong options at centre back, and cover on both flanks.

Jake Vokins is an excellent addition, given the impact Denver Hume’s absence has had on the balance of the side.

On the other flank there are fewer natural options, but Max Power has looked comfortable in that role and Conor McLaughlin is due to return soon.

When it was put to Johnson early in the window that this may be a position of concern, he swiftly responded by saying it was possibly the position that concerned him least.

MIDFIELD

IN: Winchester

OUT: Dobson

Johnson made an interesting observation after what was just his second game in charge of Sunderland, noting that in a 4-3-3 he had midfielders suited to the physicality of League One, but not a great deal of natural creativity.

His move to a 4-2-2-2 system has made this position less of a debate, with the extra forward reducing the attacking burden on the central midfielder.

Winchester’s arrival protects Sunderland in that an injury to Grant Leadbitter would previously have left them without an obvious replacement.

There have been some bright moments from Winchester since his arrival but it is fair to wonder whether that creativity and control is in place.

One potential wildcard is Luke O’Nien.

Johnson has brought him into an attacking midfield role from the bench in recent games, though that in part is due to a shoulder injury that prevents him from taking throw-ins.

If that becomes a longer term switch, though, and Johnson has said he will consider it, then there quickly becomes genuine competition for Josh Scowen’s place.

ATTACKING MIDFIELD

IN: Jones

OUT: Embleton

Johnson has improved his depth in this part of the pitch without necessarily being particularly active in the transfer market.

The switch to a back four has allowed Jack Diamond to get more gametime in his more natural position, while Aiden McGeady's return is slowly but surely increasing Sunderland's attacking threat.

The biggest impact of this is that the Black Cats are finally beginning to look like a side that can threaten on the counter attack, even if this remains very much a work in progress.

The arrival of Jordan Jones will help this further, though the winger is likely to need time to reach full match sharpness.

Tom Flanagan, who played with Jones for Northern Ireland, summed him up as a player who can frustrate but is 'a real threat and very direct'. In short, a neat foil for McGeady and Diamond, ensuring Johnson has the depth he needs to stretch opponents right through a 90-minute period.

The challenge for Johnson is to balance that threat with the ability to maintain control of games and it’s here that the departure of Elliot Embleton is interesting.

Embleton’s gametime has not been extensive since Johnson arrived but when utilised, he has brought something different to the side.

Comfortable drifting infield and at his best in pockets of space near the edge of the area, the 20-year-old brings a different profile to the two attacking midfield positions in the currently preferred 4-2-2-2 system.

Chris Maguire can clearly play a similar role, but has appeared to be out of favour in recent times.

Sunderland do look to be lacking creativity in central areas, though Johnson’s options do look both more varied and more dynamic.

STRIKERS

IN: Stewart

OUT: Grigg, Graham

Sunderland’s two deadline day departures may leave them looking light but in reality, Johnson still has four options for what is likely to be two positions.

Lynden Gooch was introduced on the right wing against Gillingham but generally, Johnson has been clear that he sees him as a 'nine-and-a-half' and the arrival of Jones should leave him free to play centrally.

That will be a significant boost to Gooch, who has always been of the view that his best position is in a central area close to the striker.

It's a role that Aiden O'Brien has performed well in spells in recent weeks, leaving Johnson with a healthier looking forward line than when he arrived at the club.

There is an obvious need to reduce the goalscoring burden on Charlie Wyke and to that end, Ross Stewart arrives as something of an unknown quantity.

Johnson has spoken throughout the window of adding a 'willing runner', a player with the pace and fitness to stretch the opposition defence throughout games.

It was telling, then, that he welcomed Stewart as a player who is 'very quick and fit'. It's arguably the key attribute Johnson was looking for this month, conscious that his side's attacking play was too one-dimensional.

The speed with which Stewart can adapt to a new division and a new side will define whether Sunderland have the firepower they need.