Sunderland: Top-Six Team In The Making

In a Premier League transfer window which has so far really only come to life when the North West duo of Manchester United and Liverpool have dipped into their bank accounts to secure a couple of new faces apiece, Sunderland are proving very much the exception of the entire league. Steve Bruce, with the backing of his chairman Niall Quinn, has this week signed no less than three players, with defenders Wes Brown and John O'Shea arriving from Manchester United and midfielder David Vaughan coming in from relegated side Blackpool.

Those three transfers bring the Wearsiders' total of summer signings already to a quite astounding nine - only a third of the way through July. While most teams tend to wait until late July or even August to begin pulling their squad together for the new campaign, manager Bruce has clearly identified early the players he wants to reshape his team with and, armed with the estimated £16 million from the sale of Jordan Henderson to Liverpool, has set about improving his squad with a decisiveness and ability to splash the cash which fans of certain other teams may look upon with envy - despite chairman Quinn earlier saying much of their business would be done during the long summer ahead.

But is Bruce doing too much, too soon?

On the one hand, getting as much of the transfer business out of the way early on will give Bruce time to work with them in the pre-season ahead of the new campaign, while the new faces can get to know one another and gel with their current teammates. Alternatively, of course, too many new signings too soon can throw the balance of the team off and the players can take time to gel with one another, especially if Sunderland are planning on changing their established way of playing to suit the new faces.

The influx of players began with the permanent signing of Ahmed Elmohamady, who was on loan at the Stadium of Light last season and impressed in his 36 league appearances. The Egyptian did not score a league goal but showed good versatility in playing both in defence and on the right side of midfield and Bruce did not hesitate to make his loan move a more long-term one.

Shortly after Henderson departed to Liverpool, Sunderland then went on to capture both Keiren Westwood and Sebastian Larsson on free transfers from Coventry City and Birmingham City respectively. Westwood, a goalkeeper who has represented Ireland at the international level seven times, was in demand from the likes of Leeds as well as his former club Coventry, but chose to join Sunderland in the Premiership instead. Larsson, a predominantly right-sided midfielder, was wanted by rival side Newcastle United in January but, after his club was relegated, also opted for the Black Cats.

Next up, and still in June, Sunderland clinched what could in the long run turn out to be one of the biggest coups with the signing of Ipswich Town striker Connor Wickham. The England under 21 striker was certainly in demand with the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool rumoured to be following his trail, but Sunderland acted first and swooped with an initial bid of around £8 million to land the front man. A second striker signed on the following day as Sunderland completed the drawn out signing of South Korean Ji Dong-won from the Chunnam Dragons after he received his relevant administrative documents.

Another Birmingham midfielder, Craig Gardner, arrived the same day for a reported £6 million; perhaps this of all Bruce's transfers so far will turn out to be the most shrewd. Gardner was excellent for a below average Birmingham side last season, scoring 10 times in all competitions.

Six transfers wrapped up and not even into July yet.

Things were relatively quiet for Sunderland the following week; it took them until July 7th to then swoop for three players on the same day - the aforementioned defensive duo of O'Shea and Brown, along with Welsh midfielder Vaughan, who impressed in Blackpool's midfield despite their relegation last year. Sunderland are also still hoping to lure another Manchester United player - midfielder Darron Gibson - to the Stadium of Light, which will take their incoming deals into double figures.

Such a turnaround in faces is equally admirable and risky but was it necessary?

The Black Cats had a wonderful first half of a season in 2010/11, sitting in sixth position even up until early February. However a disastrous run of form saw them win just once from 11 games - losing nine of them - during February, March and April. By this time they had fallen to 14th place in the Premier League, suddenly only six points above the relegation zone. However, two wins from their final three games saw them finish in a respectable 10th position - their first top half finish to a season since the 2000/01 campaign, and their first time since they returned to the top flight following relegation in 2005/06.

Sunderland's early season form showed they were a squad comfortably capable of holding their own in the top half of the league, though many point to the exit of top scorer Darren Bent and their subsequent failure to replace him in January as a primary reason for their sudden plummet down the league table. They did also suffer with a horrendous injury list at times, but at the same time Sunderland did already have a fairly hefty Premier League squad to cope with it.

In Ji and Wickham, Sunderland have brought in youth and potential to supplement their current attackers of Asamoah Gyan and Frazier Campbell, but that is an area which could still use some attention. The free signing of keeper Westwood gives Sunderland massive competition for the No. 1 spot; Simon Mignolet and Craig Gordon shared the duty last season and both remain at the club for now.

O'Shea and Brown, with their championship-winning experiences behind them, will surely take two of the defensive places for their new team, who still count Titus Bramble, Anton Ferdinand and Michael Turner as their other central enforcers, with Marcos Angeleri - if he finally breaks into the side. Keiran Richardson and Phil Bardsley will be offering full back options. Defenders Nyron Nosworthy, Matt Kilgallon and George McCartney are also still on the Sunderland books, having spent last season out on loan at various clubs.

Finally, in midfield, Sunderland are seriously heavy-loaded at present.

Last season's usual foursome was Steed Malbranque, Lee Cattermole and Elmohamady, as well as the now departed Henderson. Bolo Zenden was also a frequent performer, though he has now left after his contract expired. Cristian Riveros is also still on their books, though will spend the season on loan in Turkey with Kayserispor. Academy products Jack Colback and David Meyler are first team members when not injured, while Stephane Sessegnon had an impressive impact after joining the club in the January transfer window. Added to those six are new boys Gardner, Larsson and Vaughan.

In total, the club currently have 24 players ready for first team action plus the formerly loaned out defensive trio, if they stay at the club this season. Add to that youngsters such as Craig Lynch, Ryan Noble and Jordan Cook who began to have an impact in the senior side last season and the club suddenly have one of the biggest squads in the entire league. Doubtless, there will be one or two faces still to leave the club, while as mentioned the striking department could still do with a more experienced face to go alongside the youthful looking lineup, but Steve Bruce certainly looks to have his hands full as he begins to prepare his side for the new season ahead.

A top half finish last season could rightly be regarded by the Sunderland hierarchy as something of a successful step on their way to establishing themselves as a bigger Premier League side, but the ambition and ruthlessness of the club this summer shows that they still have a bigger target yet - to get the club into Europe again. Competition for a top six, is more intense than ever these days with the duos from Manchester and North London, plus Chelsea and Liverpool, almost certain to occupy them in some order or other, while Aston Villa, Everton and probably even Sunderland's biggest rivals Newcastle set to fight over the seventh place which could offer another route into the Europa League.

Steve Bruce will have to eke out every last piece of consistency from his players this season to manage it but one thing is for sure; if Sunderland don't improve on a top 10 placing this time around, it won't be for lack of trying in the transfer market.

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