Transfer insights to a superb academy cameo: Seven key conclusions from Sunderland's pre-season return
Sunderland began their pre-season campaign with a 2-2 draw at Spennymoor Town on Saturday afternoon.
A senior XI led by Lee Johnson took a 1-0 lead into the half-time interval, with Aiden O’Brien converting a cross from Ross Stewart.
The National League North side quickly established a lead with two set-piece goals against an U23 XI in the early stages of the second half, before the impressive Ellis Taylor made his mark with an equalising goal.
There were a number of major talking points on the day, but off the pitch and on it.
Here, we run you through seven key conclusions...
FULL BACK IS AN OBVIOUS TRANSFER PRIORITY
Johnson fielded his senior group in a back five on Saturday, which was less a reflection of his tactical plans for the upcoming season and more the consequence of the complete lack of full-back options as things stand.
Lynden Gooch and Jack Diamond stood in as wing-backs, with Carl Winchester operating on the back of a right three.
That understandably gave Spennymoor Town some gaps to exploit, though Gooch was one of the best performers in the first half and Winchester certainly grew into the role.
With Denver Hume still weighing up whether to sign a new contract, it's quite clearly the area of the pitch where Sunderland look weakest.
Adding athletic, attacking options will be key to realising the high-tempo philosophy fans have been promised.
LUKE O'NIEN CLOSE TO GIVING SUPPORTERS A MAJOR BOOST
Johnson confirmed that he has been in near constant dialogue with Luke O'Nien in recent weeks as the pair discussed his plans going forward and where the 26-year-old would fit in.
The expectation is that O'Nien will soon put pen to paper, immediately strengthening Johnson's options for the campaign ahead.
The 26-year-old brings versatility and experience, while his athleticism could be crucial in midfield as Johnson looks to take the team's pressing game to the next level.
With numbers low on Saturday, Aiden O’Brien dropped a little deeper than usual to join Embleton in one of the two attacking central midfield roles.
He did well, making some excellent late runs and eventually getting on the scoresheet. It’s a role in which O’Nien would surely thrive.
& HE COULD BE JOINED BY FURTHER NEW ARRIVALS
Johnson said that the Black Cats are currently have 'four of five' bids in play, a mix of permanent, loan and free agent deals.
The head coach admitted starting pre-season with such a threadbare squad is not ideal, but stressed that the impact of COVID-19 has made it a challenging market to date.
It was a reflection of his confidence, though, that he also said at least two new additions could arrive this week.
Sunderland's squad is expected to have undergone a significant transformation by the time the campaign begins next month, and it looks as if supporters will not have to wait too much longer for that process to begin in earnest.
EMBLETON SHOWS THE BRAVERY SUNDERLAND NEED THIS SEASON
There were one or two occasions where Elliot Embleton lost the ball in dangerous areas, but that was comfortably outweighed by the times he drove into space or opened the pitch up with his forward passing.
The most eye-catching example came with a superb chipped pass over the top of the Spennymoor defence. Ross Stewart fired home, only to see the offside flag raised.
It was an encouraging start from Embleton, and equally so from Stewart.
Both could be key players in the campaign ahead.
WILL GRIGG'S EXIT IS NOT YET CERTAIN
Grigg was unfortunate to lose his footing when Ross Stewart crossed well for him early on, but thereafter the striker produced an intelligent cameo.
His link-up play was good, and could well have yielded two assists on another day.
The 30-year-old seemed to enjoy having a number of attacking players around him, when so often he has looked isolated in a Sunderland shirt.
It served as a reminder that while an exit this summer remains likely, it is not entirely clear cut.
Johnson has said that he rates the striker, but it is clear that the striker has a decision to make.
ELLIS TAYLOR MAKES HIS MARK
After the initial shock of conceding two poor set-piece goals at the start of the second half, Sunderland's U23s looked composed in possession and ultimately deserved their equalising goal.
Key to the way they were able to grow into the game was the impressive poise of Ellis Taylor on the right wing.
Time and time again Taylor was able to carry the ball out of tight spaces, dragging his side up the pitch and bringing team-mates into play.
His goal was taken superbly and underlined his already impressive technical ability.
At 18, time is firmly on Taylor's side and the next step will clearly be preparing for the greater physical demands of senior football.
All the same, it is easy to see why the club were so keen to secure Taylor to a professional contract, and why Johnson has been keeping a close eye on him in senior training of late.
AND SUNDERLAND SHOW THEIR FAITH IN DAN NEIL AGAIN
Johnson has made his admiration for Neil clear, and the 19-year-old showed his quality in a composed showing in front of the back three.
Regardless of how the next few weeks pan out, that Neil wore the captain's armband was another sign of just how high Sunderland's hopes are in the long-term for this young midfielder.