Premier League Fantasy Preview: Sunderland
Since this article was published Sam Allardyce was offered and accepted the England job, with David Moyes replacing him in the Sunderland hot-seat.
Sam Allardyce’s links to the England manager’s job have made most of the Sunderland headlines of late, with the north-east club hoping for a rare season without a relegation battle.
The appointment of Allardyce proved to be a masterstroke in a difficult season for the club, but it has been a frustrating summer, with no new arrivals at the Stadium of Light yet.
Davide Santon looked set to sign from Inter Milan but the deal fell through, with pre-season beginning without any fresh faces for the perennial strugglers.
Jermain Defoe was offside more than any other Premier League player last season, but Sunderland will again rely on his goals to keep them out of trouble.
A new captain is also a possibility for Sunderland, with John O’Shea now fading at the age of 35.
Likely tactics and formation
Allardyce tended to field Defoe as a lone striker last year, with Fabio Borini and Wahbi Khazri providing support in what could be either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 depending on the opposition.
Defoe’s offside statistics are an indication of Sunderland’s tactics, which were to feed the former England international early and often with balls in behind the opposition defence.
The January arrival of giant German Jan Kirchhoff made the difference for Sunderland as he protected their leaky defence, with the former Bayern Munich star a key man for the Black Cats.
Kirchhoff, Khazri and fellow mid-season arrival Lamine Koné were hailed by Allardyce as crucial pieces in the Sunderland puzzle and all three will be starters in his strongest XI next season.
Defoe will continue to lead the line, but there are question marks over both full-back positions, as well as in central midfield, with a few new faces likely before the opening day of the season.
Vito Mannone established himself as Sunderland’s number one last year but it is possible Allardyce will seek to upgrade the Italian before the big kick-off.
Young English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford also looks ready to be a Premier League stopper and he could well put pressure on Mannone’s place if he enjoys a good pre-season, although at the age of just 22 he is – understandably – still very inexperienced.
Koné formed a solid partnership with the previously unreliable Younès Kaboul in the second half of last season and the pair should start the season together, but new full-backs are likely to be on the shopping list for Allardyce.
Despite scoring reasonably in fantasy football, Patrick van Aanholt’s tendency to switch off defensively made him a liability, while DeAndre Yedlin has returned to Tottenham at the end of his loan spell. With neither Billy Jones or Adam Matthews up to Premier League standard, improvements are certainly needed in this area of the pitch.
Kirchhoff is the main defensive midfielder Allardyce will rely on, with a question mark over the role of Lee Cattermole. More creativity may be needed alongside the physicality of Kirchhoff, especially if Sunderland are to operate with a 4-2-3-1 more often than not. Allardyce will hope to bring back Yann M’Vila, who had a successful loan spell at the Stadium of Light last season.
Set-piece specialist Khazri is dangerous with his long-range shooting, while Allardyce is a fan of Borini’s prodigious work rate on the opposite flank, although he does not score enough goals.
While Allardyce may have a few selection headaches, he knows he can rely on Defoe. Bringing the 33-year-old back to the Premier League has proven to be a masterstroke, with 18 goals in 34 games leading fans to suggest Defoe should have earned an international recall for Euro 2016.
The concern for Sunderland’s long-suffering supporters is just how reliant they are on Defoe in front of goal, especially as he cannot have many more seasons as a top-flight footballer in his legs.
Another headache for Allardyce is likely to be the lack of quality on his bench, although there could be a role for the returning Italy international Emanuele Giaccherini, unless he moves on.
Sebastian Larsson provides experienced cover for various midfield roles and the club’s great white hope Duncan Watmore will hope for more minutes after a breakthrough season, but the future of Jeremain Lens is in doubt after he failed to impress Allardyce last season.
Will Buckley, Charalampos Mavrias, Jordi Gómez and Liam Bridcutt are deadwood in need of shipping out of the club, with O’Shea likely to be restricted to a place on the bench for most games. Jack Rodwell faces a make-or-break season after failing to justify his large transfer fee.
Khazri’s free-kicks mark him out as a fantasy football player to watch next season, especially as he is likely to be very affordable.
Defoe and Borini both successfully converted penalties last season, but Defoe is likely to take Sunderland’s spot-kicks this time out, especially with Borini’s place in the team not secure.
No new arrivals have led to nerves among some sections of the Sunderland support, although there is still a few weeks to go until the start of the season.
Among those to have left the club are strikers Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham, while Wes Brown and Steve Harper also moved on at the end of their contracts.