It’s been a long hard season for Sunderland and we’ve not even made it to 2017 yet. The club currently sit at the bottom of the Premier league on 15 points, four adrift of Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace in 17th. The Black Cats have got used to producing miraculous upturns in form in the second half of the season but this year if they were to avoid relegation, it would be their greatest ‘Houdini’ act yet. David Moyes faces one of the greatest tasks of his managerial career but this is the Premier League after all, maybe we shouldn’t write them off just yet. However, we could have all the answers we need about Sunderland by the end of next month. It certainly isn’t shaping up to be a happy new year on Wearside as they face a series of problems and how they deal with these problems will demonstrate whether they can survive or if they’re relegation fodder.
Problem 1- Jordan Pickford injury
Jordan’s Pickford’s breakthrough has been one of the few highlights for Sunderland this season. The 22-year-old stopper was always highly rated after loan spells at Bradford and Preston amongst others but after Vito Mannone’s unfortunate knee injury, he was given his big break in the Premier League and he has swiftly become one of the most highly rated young goalkeepers in the country. His fantastic performances have been lit up with some eye-catching saves which have bailed his side out on numerous occasions and earned him a call-up to the England squad for the first time. Despite having played only sixteen of the eighteen matches this season, he currently has the second most saves in the league this season (73), only behind Tom Heaton (79). Yet, in a cruel blow for him and the club, he picked up a knee injury in the match against Manchester United and now faces between 6-8 weeks out. Sunderland may sit bottom of the league but any Black Cats fan will tell you things would be a lot worse if it wasn’t for Pickford, fans will have to hope that Mannone will do just as well on his return to the side.
Problem 2- AFCON
While many of us fans look forward to the African Cup of Nations every two years, it is the stuff of nightmares for club managers. They know that they will be deprived of their African players for the whole of January and potentially into February too. Sunderland will be hit worse than most this time around. In his press conference ahead of the trip to Burnley, Moyes confirmed that the club will be without Lamine Kone (Ivory Coast), Wabhi Khazri (Tunisia) and Didier Ndong (Gabon) for the duration of the tournament after they were called up to their respective national squads. As well as this, Centre-back Papy Djilobodji has been named on the reserve list for Senegal, injury permitting, they could be without his services too. Such a situation would leave the Black Cats dangerously short at the back as John O’Shea and Paddy McNair are the only other natural centre-backs in the squad. As for the three definitely on the plane, all are regulars, especially Lamine Kone who was one the January signings who helped to keep Sunderland up last season. These players could miss up to 6 weeks of the season and will leave Sunderland’s already depleted and low on quality squad down to its bare bones.
Problem 3- Jermaine Defoe
Jermaine Defoe, the saviour of Sunderland. There is no doubt about it, without him they would be a Championship club right now. Last season, his 15 Premier League goals proved invaluable to his side’s cause and the fact Sunderland had a proven goalscorer in their side set them apart from Aston Villa, Norwich and Newcastle, who ultimately paid the price for their lack of goals. He has been in a similar rich reign of form this season too, scoring 8 in 18 league appearances.
The problem for the club is keeping hold of him, rumours are circulating that West Ham are interested in bringing the veteran striker back to the club. With Duncan Watmore out for the season, Victor Anichebe playing well but not a striker known for being prolific in-front of goal, 27 goals in 192 Premier League matches and Fabio Borini struggling to get a look in, losing Defoe would be disastrous for the club and would almost certainly lead to relegation. In a recent press conference, West Ham manager Slaven Bilic refused to rule out a swoop for the striker, instead, he was full of praise for him, saying “He’s a very good player. Defoe is scoring goals and that is important.” This will certainly please resident West Ham fan Josh Keeble-Wells, who in his Christmas wishes for the club, picked out Defoe as a potential signing. Rumours are also circulating that Crystal Palace fancy Defoe, so it looks as if it’s going to be a long January for the Black Cats, keeping Defoe would be as important as any new additions.
Problem 4- Is there any money?
On the playing front, the problems just keep mounting up for Sunderland. Duncan Watmore has been ruled out for the season with a cruciate knee ligament injury, Jan Kirchoff too has had knee surgery and is expected to miss the next 12 weeks and when you couple this with Yann M’Vila’s refusal to re-join the club and the pending AFCON departures, it appears obvious that Sunderland will need to dip into the transfer market this January. One problem, is there any money available? In a recent interview, Chief Executive Martin Bain described the club’s January funds as “very limited” and suggested: “We’re rebuilding and restructuring, it’s going to take a while and we’re not going to be able to spend to get out of trouble.” This not only upset the fanbase but David Moyes as well, who believes he was misled. In response, he spoke of guarantees Chairman Ellis Short gave him about improving the squad. He also claimed to have no idea about Short’s desire to sell the club. So it appears that the club has its fair share of off-field problems as well. None of this bodes well when all focus needs to go into bringing in reinforcements that this squad sorely needs in all areas of the pitch.
Overall, I’m afraid to say, I can’t see a way out of the mess the club currently finds itself in. It looks very unlikely to be a happy new year as all of these issues have mounted up. Unless the club can pull out all the answers to these problems, Sunderland could well find that this is the year their luck runs out. However, as much as they won’t want to hear it, relegation could prove to be a positive in the long run. Just look across the way at how Newcastle have taken advantage of the chance to sort out their off-field problems and clear out all deadwood from their squad. There is still hope for the Black Cats but if they don’t find a way around these problems this month, that may no longer be the case.
Feature image credit: The JPS