The crucial position for Sunderland's recruitment this summer and the options they currently have

The announcement that Sunderland would be releasing seven players at the end of their contracts signalled that this would be a summer of significant rebuilding.

Saturday, 19th June 2021, 1:00 pm

Big decisions were made all over the pitch, but nowhere is the scale of change going to be deeper in central midfield.

In releasing Grant Leadbitter, Max Power and Josh Scowen, Sunderland have lost a combined 152 appearances from last season.

With Sunderland shaping up to play in a variation of 4-3-3 through next season, it looks likely that in this part of the pitch they will need three summer recruits.

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Carl Winchester will be looking to stake in claim in pre-season
Carl Winchester will be looking to stake in claim in pre-season

Part of their recruitment planning will, of course, depend on the future of Luke O'Nien.

While Aiden McGeady is expected to extend his stay on Wearside and Charlie Wyke expected to depart, O'Nien's future appears to remain in the balance.

O'Nien has thrived on Wearside and has developed a deep affection for the club, but has the opportunity to test himself in the Championship and at 26, it is a big decision.

Should he stay, then a berth in central midfield looks likely.

His stellar form at centre-back alongside Dion Sanderson had initially left Johnson questioning his early assessment of his strongest position, but by the end of the campaign the head coach was again talking about the energy and drive O'Nien could bring if deployed further forward.

As Sunderland look to implement an aggressive, high-pressing style, that willingness to press in midfield will be key.

What they also clearly need is an injection of creativity. Johnson calls it 'pitch personality’; the willingness to receive the ball on the turn and to break lines either through forward passing or driving towards goal in possession.

Elliot Embleton is set to be a key part of this, though the talented youngster is more comfortable in a slightly more advanced role.

As it stands, there are two further players who will almost certainly get opportunities to stake a claim.

Carl Winchester made a steady start to life on Wearside after arriving from Forest Green in January, and Johnson will be looking to him to kick on.

Winchester was recruited partially because his skillset suggested he was capable of replicating Leadbitter's composure and metronomic passing. There were some impressive performances in the second half of the season, particularly in the 2-0 win away at Portsmouth in March.

The challenge for Winchester is in producing that level consistently, both within and across a run of games.

In line for a similar opportunity at the beginning of pre-season is Dan Neil.

Similar to Anthony Patterson, Sunderland have no doubt about his long-term prospects and believe he has a major future on Wearside.

Like Patterson, they also want to reward his superb U23 contribution last year with a meaningful chance at senior level.

Johnson, for his part, has backed Neil heavily and even drawn comparison to Burnley's Josh Brownhill, who Johnson coached at Barnsley and Bristol City.

Again, the situation is similar to that of Patterson whereby the biggest question is whether that time for a permanent promotion to the first team is now, or whether a loan is the best move in the interim.

Alongside the full back positions, central midfield is a clear recruitment priority this summer and the business Sunderland do will tell us much.

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