Sunderland's January transfer business exposed after Charlton defeat at Wembley
When Sunderland finally completed the signing of Will Grigg from Wigan Athletic on February 1, it looked like they'd capped off a successful mid-season transfer window.
The Black Cats may have lost their top scorer in the form of Josh Maja, who’d netted an impressive 16 goals in all competitions before his move to Boardeaux, yet Sunderland were replacing the 20-year-old frontman with a proven goalscorer at this level.
As third tier strikers go, after scoring at least 19 goals in his last three seasons in League One, Grigg was as prolific as they come.
The striker was Sunderland's fifth January signing earlier this year, with Jimmy Dunne, Lewis Morgan and Kazaiah Sterling all joining on loan, while Grant Leadbitter returned to his boyhood club from Middlesbrough.
But, of the five men who joined Sunderland at the start of 2019, only Leadbitter was selected for the Black Cats’ biggest game of the season - a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Charlton in the League One play-off final.
On a dismal afternoon for the Black Cats, Leadbitter was arguably Sunderland’s best player at Wembley, the 33-year-old providing a calming influence in possession when his side were under the cosh.
In the past, Leadbitter has been praised for his probing cross-field passes which can stretch opponents and unlock defences.
But, on another day when Sunderland’s attack looked clunky and toothless for large spells, the side’s midfield struggled to synchronise with the players in front of them.
What was also clear was the Black Cats’ lack of creativity from the midfield engine room, as the energy and guile of Charlton youngsters Josh Cullen and Joe Aribo regularly caused problems when the Addicks were in possession.
It didn’t help that Sunderland lost Max Power through injury early on, forcing Jack Ross into an premature change.
With Leadbitter operating further back, Lee Cattermole tried to make up the numbers in the final third, but with limited success.
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Cattermole, 31, has scored seven goals and provided one assist this season but isn’t renowned for his creativity from midfield - an area Sunderland must surely address ahead of next season.
Of the other January signings, Morgan, on loan from Celtic, featured for the best part of 80 minutes, following Power's departure, but failed to make a significant impact.
The 22-year-old can cause problems with his direct running down the wing but his end product can often be questioned - hence the reason he started on the bench.
Grigg also entered the fray just before the hour mark, first operating alongside fellow striker Charlie Wyke, before the latter was replaced by Aiden McGeady.
After netting just four goals for the Black Cats since January, Grigg produced some neat touches after coming on, while Sunderland looked a better side following his introduction.
Yet there’s still an overriding feeling that Sunderland haven’t learnt to play to Grigg’s strengths, after going direct for large spells at Wembley when Wyke was on the pitch.
Grigg wasn’t the only striker who joined Sunderland on transfer deadline day, yet Sterling, who signed on loan from Tottenham, has made just eight league appearances for the Black Cats and wasn’t even on the bench here.
Meanwhile, Dunne has been unable to force his way into a patched-up defence which has regularly altered this campaign.
With the benefit of hindsight, the sale of Maja was even more damaging than first feared back in January - a month where Sunderland's transfer business backfired drastically.