The next steps for Sunderland and Elliot Embleton explained and assessed after major Blackpool loan success
At face value, it does not look like Sunderland’s finest call.
An academy graduate, on the fringes of the senior squad, loaned to a divisional rival who went on to storm their way past the Black Cats to promotion.
At a club where developing academy talent is central to a new long-term vision, Elliot Embleton’s success at Blackpool made for an odd dynamic in the closing stages of the campaign.
What’s really crucial, though, is what happens next.
Despite the odd optics the decision to send Embleton to Neil Critchley’s side on deadline day was a brave one and it could yet prove to be a masterstroke.
Get the next steps right, and it will be entirely vindicated.
One of the undoubted frustrations of Sunderland’s time in League One is that few academy players have definitively broken through, and Embleton is one of those who have seen their pathway blocked by signings whose financial burden on the club is greater, but whose contributions on the pitch have ultimately been mixed.
Supplementing young talent with experience and quality is essential to success, but the Black Cats unquestionably need to strike a better balance than they have managed over the last three seasons.With Embleton, his frustrating Sunderland story so far has been as much bad fortune as it has been bad decision making.
Injuries have been badly timed, particularly that first serious muscle injury at Sheffield United in the 2019/20 campaign, when under Jack Ross he was beginning to make a significant impression.
Equally damaging was an injury picked up in the first game of pre-season for the current campaign.
Along the way, though, there have also been calls that have checked momentum. Being replaced in the side for Fleetwood Town away by Danny Graham at a late stage, for example.
And though subsequent results showed it was a good call, it was Embleton who made way at the last minute when Lee Johnson opted to promote Aiden McGeady from his planned substitute role for his first game in charge against Wigan Athletic.
That was significant because remarkably, it would have been the first time Embleton had started consecutive league games for Sunderland.
The consequence has been the attacking midfielder has too often been judged on sporadic opportunities; a cameo from the bench chalked off as a chance not taken if the game has not been transformed at his introduction.
That is a cycle that needs to be broken next season and to the credit of the new regime, his move to Blackpool has given him every chance of doing exactly that.
Though questions have been raised about the decision to loan out the 22-year-old, Sunderland had a significant number of players in forward positions and the fierce debate that surrounded Chris Maguire’s involvement in the closing weeks of the season is instructive in that regard.
Maguire was initially the player Sunderland made available for loan, but when he opted to stay it was clear that Embleton’s short-term gametime would be squeezed even further.
From there the decision was where would be best for his development.
Blackpool proved to be a fine choice. Embleton had to be patient as he worked his way into the starting XI, but once he managed that he retained his place and excelled in the pressurised environment of a promotion push.
Though his output in terms of goals and assists was solid rather than spectacular, it will not have gone unnoticed on Wearside just how trusted Embleton came to be by his head coach. In what can potentially be a very open 4-2-2-2 system, Embleton showed the defensive discipline and willingness to press that is crucial in maintaining the balance of the side.
There were, too, flashes of the undoubted quality Embleton has. His goal against Oxford United in the second leg of the play-off semi final would have been a strong goal of the season contender, had the awards been handed out just a few weeks later.
With Johnson eager to try and keep his squad relatively lean next season, Embleton could be a crucial player.
He has shown at Bloomfield Road that he can be trusted to play out wide, is an obvious candidate to play as a number ten and could certainly operate as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3.
Blackpool’s promotion of course adds another layer of intrigue.
Embleton has made an impression there and it seems likely that they will seek to offer him the opportunity to try and make an impact in the Championship.
Though the decision to activate a year-long extension to Embleton’s contract in January has given Sunderland some protection, there could be a decision to make for player and club.
It reflected well on both Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman that the communication around Embleton’s surprise loan in January was excellent, with both the logic behind the decision and the next steps addressed in detail and with clarity.
Both have been utterly insistent at every step of the way that Embleton will return to be a key part of the senior squad next season, leaving absolutely no room for any doubt or interpretation.
It’s up to both now to underline that commitment as the youngster prepares to return to Wearside for what will likely be a defining campaign.
Embleton is a two-footed, former England youth international who has now had two unquestionably successful loan spells.
When it comes to Sunderland in League One the question is if not now, then when?
It will be up to Embleton to make the most of his platform, but it is imperative that proper opportunities are laid out for him. Embleton has played his way into a bright future, whether it be here or elsewhere.
For Sunderland, it is a major opportunity to show a strong, early commitment to the vision laid out for the long term.