Backed by the loudest supporters in the Premier League last season, measured at average peak volume at 129.2 decibels, almost as loud as a jet, Sunderland will look to improve on last season’s respectable 15th-place finish. The Black Cats were the only newly-promoted team to survive in the Premiership, an accomplishment in itself, but manager Roy Keane has made it clear through his summer signings that he wants more from his club.
Keane, the youngest manager in England’s top division, has added six players so far, four of whom figure to play right away in some capacity or another, including the trio acquired from Tottenham. Pascal Chimbonda will be the first-choice right back and bring stability to a position in which Keane started six different players last season, four at least eight times. Steed Malbranque can play virtually anywhere in midfield, but will likely feature on the left flank for Sunderland as Ross Wallace was loaned out to Preston North End. Teemu Tainio is another versatile player, capable of playing both full back positions or on either wing, and could be used as quality cover in case of injury. El-Hadji Diouf was signed from Bolton and will play either as Kenwyne Jones’ partner up front or on the right wing opposite Malbranque.
Sunderland lost no one of importance; Andy Cole was the biggest name to leave the Stadium of Light, but he started only three games up front and was no higher than fourth on the depth chart at that position. Greg Halford started eight games at right back last season, but was deemed expendable when Chimbonda signed on.
Adding Malbranque, Tainio, and Diouf reinforced Sunderland’s strongest asset — their midfield. Aside from those three, who were just discussed, Carlos Edwards and Kieran Richardson are speedy, capable wide players when healthy, Grant Leadbitter can play any midfield position and is Sunderland through and through, Dwight Yorke brings much-needed leadership and experience to the otherwise-young roster from his central role, Dickson Etuhu is the club’s holding player above the back four, and the captain, Dean Whitehead, will play anywhere he’s asked to play but is naturally a center midfielder.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Craig Gordon
CB: Nyron Nosworthy
CB: Danny Higginbotham
LB: Danny Collins
CMF: Whitehead (captain)
ST: Michael Chopra
*This is pending the results of Kenwyne Jones’ knee operation. When Jones is healthy, he’ll start with Chopra and push Diouf to right wing in place of Edwards.
As we saw last year, this formation isn’t rigid and Keane really swaps players in and out of the starting lineup based on their form, especially in the midfield. The four I listed there will change regularly, probably more so than any team I’ve previewed so far, because the club is deepest in that area. Yorke will play his share of games, especially against the league’s better teams, Richardson will get his chances, as will Leadbitter. Keane also employs a 4-5-1 from time to time, in which instance Jones is the lone striker.
Sunderland has their hands full to start the season with three consecutive games against European participants — home to Liverpool (Champions League), at Tottenham (UEFA Cup), and home against Manchester City (UEFA Cup). After that, they’ll see Wigan, host Middlesbrough in the first Tees-Wear Derby of the season, travel to Aston Villa, and welcome Arsenal to the Stadium of Light. Those are seven difficult matches, to say the least, so anything more than seven points would have to be considered a bonus.
Late November and early December brings a stretch of four winnable games in five: Bolton, West Brom, @ Hull City, and Blackburn. Those games are interrupted only by Roy Keane’s second return to Old Trafford as a manager, which should be entertaining.
January could be a pivotal month for the Black Cats. They’ll play two local derbies — @ Middlesbrough to start the month, @ Newcastle to end it in the Tyne-Wear fixture — and host Aston Villa and Fulham in between. All bets are off in those rivalry games, but they really need to win of those and it’d be nice from a Sunderland point of view to win those two matches at home.
They close out the year with home games against Everton and Chelsea, sandwiched around trips to Bolton and Portsmouth. The run-in is another tough month for Keane’s scrappy bunch, though they should be safe in the table by then.
Bottom Line: Keane showed me a lot last season, his first as a Premiership manager, and he’s only going to get better as the years progress. The club has spent money and added some nice pieces to the roster, which is now significantly deeper than it had been. A lot hinges on the health of Jones; he’s their main scoring threat and if he’s out for any considerable length of time, they may be in trouble. Playing in front of that boisterous crowd is a huge advantage — 9 home wins was 8th-most in the league last year — but they have to improve on the road. With the experience Keane has brought in, I think they will.
We’ll move closer to the top half of the table tomorrow as the countdown continues with places 12 and 11.
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