Sunderland transfer news: Why Edouard Michut isn't signing and what it might tell us about the plan ahead
Sunderland confirmed that Edouard Michut will not be signing permanently for the club yesterday
Just before Christmas Tony Mowbray made a prediction.
The second half of the season, he was pretty sure, would be better for Edouard Michut.
The PSG youngster had struggled to make much of an impression in the opening months of his loan spell, an exciting cameo at Luton Town offset by a series of minor injuries preventing him from building any momentum.
Perhaps that was to be expected, given that Michut was adapting to a physically more demanding league and was trying to do so despite having had a less than ideal pre-season.
Mowbray had nevertheless seen his talent in training and his confidence would prove to be well placed.
An injury to Corry Evans pushed Dan Neil deeper and there, finally, was the space for Michut. And now he was fit enough to grasp it, putting together a string of regular appearances that showcased his impressive composure and ability on the ball.
As he scored his first goal and fans began to serenade him to the tune of Depeche Mode, the growing expectation was that having battled through that difficult first phase of his development, the triggering of the option-to-buy clause this summer would likely be a mere formality.
So what changed?
When Michut took to social media in the aftermath of the club’s play-off defeat last week, it seemed clear that he was saying his farewells. That was confirmed on Tuesday, when Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman said a mutual decision had been taken by both parties not to pursue a permanent deal this summer.
In the end, it is a decision that probably says more about the direction in which both are heading this summer, and less about what was in the end a largely successful loan spell.
Why competition for midfield places is about to get even bigger
It looks increasingly as if Sunderland’s first piece of significant transfer business this summer will be the acquisition of Jobe Bellingham, Birmingham City’s hugely talented central midfielder. The 17-year-old made his full debut against the Black Cats at St Andrews earlier this season and his family retain close links to key staff at the club, who played a significant role in the rise of his older brother Jude.
Bellingham’s presence at the Stadium of Light for the first leg of the semi final against Luton was significant, a game for which Michut was named on the bench.
That was a decision that said less about Michut’s form, and more about that of the player who had taken his place in the side. Michut had been unable to make the starting XI for that final day clash with Preston North End, struggling with sickness in the days beforehand and only able to arrive at the team hotel late on the eve of the game. Pierre Ekwah’s form had been steadily improving and at Deepdale he went to another level, producing a simply exceptional display that he then carried into that semi final.
Ekwah arrived on Wearside in January having never made a senior appearance, and with Mowbray making clear that he needed time to learn how to blend physicality with his obvious technical ability. With that process now significantly further down the line, he looks not just a contender for the starting XI next season but increasingly like, as Mowbray would put it, a ‘stick-on’ to feature consistently.
Should Bellingham arrive as expected, he will do so with the club fully intending to give him regular football and so already, the competition for places is growing significantly.
Then you consider that Jay Matete will return from his loan at Plymouth Argyle to try and stake a claim for one of those number eight roles through pre-season, and you begin to see why such a significant investment in Michut may not make sense either for player or for club.
The slight shift in approach that could be ahead
What it also perhaps suggests is that Sunderland may well be making steps to correct what was at times an unbalanced midfield in the aftermath of Corry Evans’ ACL injury, when they had plenty of options but almost all of them were primarily technical number eights.
Particularly on home turf, Sunderland found it difficult to play against sides who deployed a midblock and countered quickly in numbers from midfield. The nadir came in that 5-1 defeat to Stoke City, when Will Smallbone in particular was outstanding and underlined some key attributes that Sunderland’s midfield lacked.
Evans is not likely to be fit for the start of the new campaign and if Dan Neil is to continue in that holding midfield role, one he increasingly thrived in towards the end of the season, then both Mowbray and the club will have to consider the balance of the midfield around him.
Even without Michut, they are unlikely to be short on the technical ability they need to open teams up. They have Neil, they will have Alex Pritchard and Abdoullah Ba, they will have Elliot Embleton fit again and they will have whoever is recruited to help fill the gap left by Amad as he returns to Manchester United.
Whether they sign another central midfielder may well depend on how long they think they will be without Evans, and whether Matete convinces Mowbray that he can play regularly at Championship level. If another player similar to style in Evans is indeed recruited, then Neil again becomes a contender for one of the more attacking roles in the middle of the park.
Michut most certainly has the ability to be a part of that group and to play on a regular basis but the point is that his route to a prominent role week in, week out is far from clear.
At Championship level, you suspect Michut will have been looking for a more obviously central role and with Bellingham’s arrival seemingly imminent, there are other areas of the squad where Sunderland very clearly need to prioritise committing significant chunks of their transfer budget.
The big question moving forward
Where there may be some understandable concerns amongst Sunderland supporters is that they have seen in flashes a level of ability from Michut that strongly suggest he could in time command a fee well in excess of the reported initial 2.5 million Euros agreed last summer. And more fundamentally that having gone through that initially difficult stage of his development, it may now be another club that reaps the reward of the undoubted progress he has made.
How this decision comes to be viewed in time will rest much on how Michut kicks on from this promising second half of the season, and perhaps even more so on how Bellingham fares in the next couple of seasons if he does indeed become one of the club’s major summer additions.
It’s in some ways a disappointing end to what looked as if it could be a very promising partnership, but it’s perhaps one that makes sense in the context of what both player and club need to take the next step in their development.