Premier League preview – Sunderland

Last season:

Premier League: 17th

FA Cup: Third Round

League Cup: Fourth Round

After securing Premier League survival by the skin of their teeth last season, Sunderland have been one of the most active clubs in the summer transfer market so far. Paolo Di Canio, who proved such a galvanising force upon replacing Martin O’Neill as the club’s manager in late March, has wasted no time in imprinting his stamp on the club and particularly, its transfer policy.

Under O’Neill and, indeed, under predecessors Steve Bruce and Roy Keane, Sunderland were criticised for a seemingly narrow scouting policy that failed to look much further afield than the borders of the United Kingdom.

Enter Di Canio who along with new Director of Football Roberto De Fanti and Chief Scout Valentino Angeloni have to date have made 10 summer signings. Tellingly, only two have come from English clubs: youngster Duncan Watmore from Altrincham and Italian goalkeeper Vito Mannone from Arsenal.

Departing the Stadium of Light are remnants of the old regimes, with Titus Bramble, Matthew Kilgallon, Ahmed Elmohamady, Danny Graham, Alfred N’Diaye and James McClean all no longer at the club, though the sale of star goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to Liverpool was perhaps one Di Canio would rather have avoided.

Indeed, both Graham and N’Diaye only arrived last January as O’Neill’s last two signings while Irishman McClean, as a real favourite not just for the Northern Irishman but for Sunderland supporters, perhaps represents the most surprising sale.

Di Canio has been critical of the squad’s professionalism and the club’s culture under the previous manager, which goes some way to explaining the way previous team lieutenants Phil Bardsley and ex-captain Lee Cattermole have been cast out from the first-team picture and are free to leave.

Away from the revolving transfer door, much of the pre-season focus has been on Di Canio’s attempt to improve the squad’s fitness levels, having been quick to criticise them upon his arrival in the North East. Training sessions have reportedly been as intense as any in the Premier League, a fact that could explain the departures of Graham and McClean, two players who often looked to be struggling physically in a Sunderland shirt towards the end of last season.

Another one of Di Canio’s aims is to integrate a more progressive, passing style of play. Under the stewardship of O’Neill and Bruce, Sunderland’s tactics were often one-dimensional at best and at worst, rather agricultural. The hope must be that with the more cultured additions to the squad, allied with improved fitness and importantly, Di Canio’s vibrant enthusiasm, the club’s supporters may just witness a little more excitement on the pitch this season.

Perhaps the biggest question over Sunderland’s chances of success this season however lie with the manager himself. For all of Di Canio’s bluster and passion, it must be remembered that this is his first full season managing at the top level and in the seven games he took charge of last season, he only secured two victories. How he handles the opening few matches should determine the club’s trajectory this season.

Paolo Di Canio divided opinion upon his appointment

Manager – Paolo Di Canio: The former Swindon boss will almost certainly be the most quotable manager in the Premier League this season but Sunderland will need him to have more of an impact on the pitch than off it if they are to achieve their objectives in 2013/14.

Key signing – Jozy Altidore: Italian international winger Emanuele Giaccherini may have stolen all the headlines so far but for a side that struggled to find the net last season, the £6m spent on American striker Jozy Altidore, a player who struggled in a previous spell in the Premier League at Hull, represents a risky one indeed.

Key sale – James McClean: The Irishman may not enjoyed a particularly productive 2012-13 campaign but still played as a regular under both O’Neill and then Di Canio. Given the fact he still has youth on his side and retains obvious talent in his pace, finishing and ability to take players on, his sale to Wigan represents a surprise on Sunderland’s part.

Keep an eye out for – “Management by hand grenade”: It has become an immortalised quote on Di Canio’s managerial style, offered by the Italian’s former Chief Executive at previous club Swindon. Bar one memorable knee-slide at the home of arch rivals Newcastle, Di Canio was rather sedated after taking charge on Wearside in late March. With a full pre-season behind him, do not be surprised if that changes quickly.

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