Why Sunderland signed Alex Pritchard, where he'll fit in this season & the key next steps

"It’s not often that you get the opportunity to sign a player of this quality in League One," Lee Johnson said.

Monday, 12th July 2021, 12:54 pm
Updated Monday, 12th July 2021, 12:56 pm

Sunderland s vision for this summer of recruitment is to haul down the average of the squad. To give it a more youthful look, more athletic, more durable, and with the kind of resale value that can drive towards sustainability in the long run.

Yet there is also a league to challenge for, and the early moves from the likes of Wigan Athletic and Ipswich Town have suggested that this year it will be as tough as any other.

Experience and quality remains key, and that explains why the Black Cats have made a move for the 28-year-old, who struggled for gametime at Huddersfield Town last season but has proven his quality at a higher level.

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Sunderland midfielder Alex Pritchard

Pritchard brings two hugely valuable qualities to the fold.

One is his versatility. His most natural position is as a number ten, and so he will be a natural fit in the most advanced role of the central midfield trio Johnson has spoken about playing. But Pritchard will be equally comfortable operating in a wider role if required, and that means that the attacking midfield positions are currently one in which Sunderland actually look relatively well stocked at this stage.

In terms of natural wingers, they have Aiden McGeady and Jack Diamond, and you suspect that Johnson may be eager to secure one more to ensure he always has the options to stretch the game.

He will also know, though, that as well as Pritchard he has Elliot Embleton and Lynden Gooch, who are both more than capable of operating out wide even if their preference is to play close to the striker.

Johnson values versatility immensely as it enables him to carry a smaller squad, which in turn helps team spirit and cohesion.

Most important, however, is the drive and incision Sunderland believe Pritchard can bring in possession.

So often in the early stages of his tenure, right up until the campaign's disappointing conclusion, Johnson spoke of wanting to see more personality and bravery in his team's play.

Particularly at home, where the team's form ultimately fell well short of what was required for automatic promotion, the need to lift the tempo in possession is obvious.

Sunderland, and Johnson, believe Pritchard is a player who can doubt that and his statistics are impressive.

In his only season in League One, Pritchard scored six goals and registered ten assists at Swindon Town, which worked out as just shy of goal involvement every other game.

Even in the second tier where of late his opportunities of late have been limited, his overall record is of a goal involvement near one in every three games.

It's notable too that taking on this responsibility is one of the key reasons Pritchard himself has opted to make the move north.

At 28 he is approaching his peak and so the obvious move would have been to take advantage of the Championship interest.

But eager to recapture the 'mojo' that made him such a highly-rated player, Pritchard has made a calculated gamble that the best move is to join a side where the style gives him the best chance of thriving.

His discussions with Johnson around the playing philosophy for next season have convinced him that Wearside is the best place to do that, even if that means dropping into the third tier.

"There were other offers out there, but it’s crucial for me to be with a Head Coach that knows me as a player, and as a person, and has a playing style that suits me," Pritchard explained.

"I'm a guy that wants to get on the ball and make things happen.

"I think looking back over the last few years - especially since the manager has been in - Sunderland have had a lot of the ball and I'm probably best suited in a team that has a lot of the ball.

"To try and make things happen - over the last couple of years it's been difficult for me.

"But if I can get my mojo back and maybe start scoring a few more goals and get my confidence back you never know what could happen."

For Johnson the challenge is to create that environment, and the set up on the pitch, where Pritchard feels that freedom to take risks and chances in possession.

While securing a new contract for McGeady was a major boost ahead of the new campaign, there is an acceptance and an understanding that diversifying Sunderland's attacking threat is a key task.

Pritchard's arrival is one major aspect of that; as is retaining Elliot Embleton despite interest from other clubs.

"It’s our job to wrap around him to make sure he can be the best he can possibly be, but he’s made a lot of sacrifices to come to Sunderland and I think that shows a great desire to play for the fans, for me and for the club," Johnson said after Pritchard put pen to paper on a two-year deal.

Supporters will hope that the deal kickstarts Sunderland's summer business, with some clear gaps in the squad still remaining.

With Denver Hume still in discussions over a new deal, the club are without a senior full back and in the centre back positions they remain severely lacking depth.

All of which means it remains too early to have a real sense of what comes next for Sunderland.

But Pritchard's arrival, and the calculated gamble it represents for both parties, underlines the recognition that more craft was needed in the final third.

If he can recapture the form of his earlier career, it will bode well for the season ahead.

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