Will Grigg's future, transfer priorities and a Charlie Wyke replacement: Our Sunderland writers examine key issues
With the new League One season now under a month away, there remains a number of key issues to address at Sunderland.
From incomings and outgoings to the club’s promising youngsters, there will be plenty of interesting narratives to follow ahead of the clash with Wigan Athletic on August 7.
Here, Phil Smith and Mark Donnelly look at some of those narratives and the big talking points from the last week on Wearside:
What did you make of Will Grigg's showing at Spennymoor Town and what comes next for the striker?
PS: He played well. He'll have been frustrated to miss a good early opening but lots of players seemed to be struggling with the turf and that seemed to have an impact. His link-up play was good, and he clearly enjoys having more attacking players around him. He should have had two assists and so you have to praise his contribution. It would still be a fairly major surprise if he was to start the season on Wearside but this was a reminder that he is a good footballer.
MD: Although he missed that early chance, Grigg’s all-round performance was fairly promising. He linked up well with those around him and there were some encouraging moments. Still, though, it’s tricky to see the striker becoming a first-team regular at the moment. Sunderland will be looking to strengthen their forward line this summer and there is outside interest in Grigg – although both MK Dons and Wigan Athletic are also pursuing other targets despite being linked with the 30-year-old. It will be an interesting transfer saga to follow this summer, but at the moment it still feels as if all signs are pointing towards an exit.
Which of the youngsters caught your eye at the Brewery Field and could they make an impact on the first-team this season?
PS: Dan Neil, as ever, looked very tidy and there's definitely going to be more opportunities for him to impress. At the moment there's a vacancy in the squad for that deep-lying playmaker and I think he has got every chance of putting himself in the equation. Elsewhere, I thought Ellis Taylor was absolutely superb in that second half, brave and confident in the way he carried the ball out of tight spaces. He's still very early in his development but I'd like to think we may see him push for an opportunity in the Papa John's Trophy. Similarly, Patrick Almond looks to me to be a real talent.
MD: Ellis Taylor’s second half cameo was excellent and, having trained with the first-team squad in the early weeks of pre-season, will no doubt have put himself firmly in Lee Johnson’s thoughts. Patrick Almond continues to impress me every time I see him, too. He combines the rough-and-tumble of an old-school central defender with some real composure when required. While both of these players are likely to be playing the vast majority of their football at under-23 level this season, the future certainly looks bright for the pair.
Should Sunderland recruit a like-for-like Charlie Wyke replacement or look for something different in the forward areas?
PS: They definitely need to replace Wyke's penalty-box instincts, as it is a big ask of Ross Stewart to produce that kind of tally in his first full season. But I do think Wyke's departure, while in my view a blow given his form last season, is the moment for Sunderland to vary their approach. They need goals from more areas of the pitch far more regularly this season and that means finding more creativity in midfield, and more pace up front. I think that latter attribute is particularly key.
MD: I think if you asked Sunderland fans what the club have been lacking in the forward areas since their drop into League One then you would get two key attributes emerging – pace and power. The Black Cats need a different mould of forward and the departure of Wyke allows them to bring someone in who can add a different skillset. But there’s no hiding from the fact that Sunderland now have to find someone who can match – or at least threaten to match – Wyke’s goalscoring contribution last season. That’s easier said than done.
Which do you feel are now the priority positions for the club's transfer team as they continue their squad rebuild?
PS: While I suspect they still need another striker and central midfielder, the biggest priority right now has to be the defence. Tom Flanagan and Bailey Wright are experienced campaigners but Sunderland need more athleticism alongside them. We saw what a difference Dion Sanderson made with his composure in possession last season and the Black Cats need more of that. Full-backs are also a really important part of the side if you want to play an attacking style, and so that's an area where Sunderland very clearly need to make swift progress.
MD: The defensive areas of the field are a major concern, with the full-back areas completely lacking in options at present. That will no doubt be a pressing area of focus, as too will the heart of the defence where – while Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan offer two reliable options – Sunderland are one injury away from finding themselves in a similar situation to last season. So while attacking recruits are undoubtedly required, it’s at the back where the concerns linger at present.