Busy Black Cats still without cutting edge
TEAMtalk's Mark Holmes reckons there is still a glaring weakness in the Sunderland squad, despite the rash of new signings made by Steve Bruce. Sunderland have been comfortably the most active Premier League side in the transfer market so far this summer, having already completed nine signings. Steve Bruce has captured a highly-rated goalkeeper in Keiren Westwood; two hugely-experienced defenders in John O'Shea and Wes Brown; two energetic midfielders in David Vaughan and Craig Gardner; a dead-ball specialist in Seb Larsson; and two young forwards in Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-Won. He has also completed the permanent signing of Ahmed Elmohamady, who impressed on loan at the club last season. On the other hand, the Wearsiders have lost their four other loan stars from last term - Nedum Onuoha, John Mensah, Sulley Muntari and Danny Welbeck - while Jordan Henderson has joined Liverpool. Bolo Zenden has also left the Stadium of Light. So, while Bruce has added eight new players to his first-team squad, he has lost six and could yet say goodbye to more with Steed Malbranque, Craig Gordon and Anton Ferdinand all in the final 12 months of their contracts. Come the end of the transfer window, it is unlikely the Black Cats boss will have a bigger squad than he started it with - and remember he bemoaned the lack of depth in the squad when injuries struck last season. Bruce will certainly be hoping for more luck on that front this time around, but he will surely be aware of the risk he has taken by so dramatically overhauling the squad. He will need the new players to integrate quickly - the fact seven of his signings are from these shores should help - but the most important question is whether he has actually improved the overall quality of his squad. Goalkeeper Westwood could find himself in a three-way fight for the number one jersey if Gordon does not move on - Simon Mignolet is Sunderland's other goalkeeper - but the 26-year-old will be confident of nailing down the spot. He established himself as one of the Championship's best stoppers in his three years at Coventry and should at the very least prove the equal of his contemporaries, although there is always a question mark over a player making the step up to the Premier League. Defence Replacing Onuoha and Mensah with Brown and O'Shea has widely been hailed as good business, but it remains to be seen whether Brown will be an upgrade on Onuoha at right-back given his dwindling pace. Furthermore, the man O'Shea is likely to replace is Phil Bardsley, the fans' player of the season last term. Bruce, however, will be glad to have added players of such versatility after seeing both Titus Bramble and Michael Turner struck down by injury last season. Certainly both Brown and O'Shea are more assured centre-halves than Ferdinand, who started 27 games last term despite initially being behind Mensah, Bramble and Turner in the pecking order. Midfield It is in midfield where the biggest overhaul has taken place, with Henderson, Zenden and Muntari effectively replaced by Larsson, Vaughan and Gardner. The quality of Larsson's deliveries from the right and from dead-ball situations will certainly improve the team, while Vaughan's engine, awareness and tackling ability made him a stand-out player for Blackpool last season. Gardner's goal threat will also be welcome, although it must be said the new arrivals face plenty of competition for a midfield place with Lee Cattermole, David Meyler and Stephane Sessegnon already at the club. If injuries strike again, such options will be welcomed by Bruce - but he will find it tough to keep everybody happy when all fit. Attack Bruce has added Wickham and Dong-Won up front, but Asamoah Gyan is the only other senior striker currently available to him with Fraizer Campbell a long-term injury victim. Bruce has publicly said he will use Sessegnon as a forward again - the Benin international was pushed forward last season during an injury crisis - but privately he must be desperate to add someone more proven. He would like to take Welbeck on loan again but Manchester United may not sanction another short-term move - and Bruce's comments about Sessegnon suggest the money is not there to buy another striker unless offers come in for unwanted players such as Matt Kilgallon or George McCartney. It would be a big ask for Wickham, Dong-Won and Gyan to score the necessary goals if Bruce has to go with what he has got - the first two are completely untested in the Premier League, while Gyan scored just three goals following Darren Bent's move to Aston Villa in January. Summary Despite clearly working under financial restrictions - Sunderland's outlay this summer is dwarfed by the fees received for Bent and Henderson - there is a feeling Bruce is under pressure to deliver this time after successive seasons in which the Wearsiders have failed to justify the pre-season hype. They are being tipped for big things again ahead of the new season but, despite added options in defence and midfield, their chances of matching expectations this term could rest wholly on whether they replace Bent. The Black Cats took just 13 of a possible 45 points following the England marksman's departure last season - and neither of their new strike stars are likely to fill the void. Wickham scored a modest nine goals in 41 appearances for Ipswich last season, while scoring in the Premier League is quite different to doing it in South Korea, as Dong-Won will surely find out. Persuade the board to buy a replacement for Bent, and Bruce could have Sunderland challenging for Europe. Fail, and he could find himself out of a job before Christmas, crippled under the weight of expectation.
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