Dick Advocaat may only have been on Wearside for just over five months, but his short tenure so far has been epitomised by qualities that have been desperately lacking at the Stadium of Light for way too long.
His experience, boasting 35 years in management, appears to bring with it an innate calm and reassurance that perhaps his eager but flawed predecessors Gus Poyet and Paolo Di Canio lacked. These stress-reducing traits, aligned with a pragmatic problem-solving approach to getting the best out of what he has in the squad, are the main reasons Sunderland survived last season.
The good news for Sunderland fans is this approach appears to be bearing fruit in the transfer market too.
Working with Sporting Director Lee Congerton, Advocaat’s reticence to openly discuss transfers may be a source of frustration among local journalists, and could also be the reason why – on first examination – the Black Cats’ recruitment so far this summer may seem a tad underwhelming.
But as he methodically fills evident vacancies in the squad, by the time the transfer windows comes to its annual anti-climactic close on September 1st, it’s unlikely his side will be attempting any last-minute faxes. Headlines may not be made, but a squad capable of surviving well before May should have been, if Advocaat gets his way.
His quiet revolution began in defence, adding Adam Matthews and Younes Kaboul, while also allowing Sebastian Coates to have the ‘temp’ sticker removed from his locker.
Wes Brown was also asked to stay one more year, and with Sunderland fans pleasantly surprised at the lack of interest in Costel Pantilimon, there can be few arguments that defensive depth has been bolstered, while maintaining the core of players who performed admirably last season. As has been pointed out here before, the leaking of goals was not Sunderland’s main issue of 2014/15.
This is not to say the defence did not need addressing. Brown and John O’Shea are in the twilight of their careers, while Santiago Vergini has been deemed too ponderous on the ball to play at centre-half, and too slow to make an impact at full-back.
Advocaat wants to encourage his full-backs to get forward, relying not only on his defensive-midfielders to cover, but also his forwards.
Jermain Defoe may have been lauded for his tracking back at times, but at 32, Advocaat knows his best finisher should not be spending too long on the wrong side of the halfway line. Cue the signing of Jeremain Lens, the Dutch international who, at 27, has more in the tank than Defoe, and whose first goal in pre-season – dispossessing a Hannover full-back to score the only goal of the game – demonstrated the pace and tenacity that should make him a crowd favourite.
As it stands, those four remain Sunderland’s only purchases. By the time they line-up against Leicester on Saturday (Sunderland are 14/5 to win), however, should terms and medicals be agreed, international midfielders Yann M’Vila and Leroy Fer will be named in the squad. M’Vila’s brawn will complement Lee Cattermole’s energy in front of the back four, while Fer’s height and eye for goal will provide a new dimension at Seb Larsson’s set pieces.
Should they sign, you can be sure Advocaat will be more than happy with his goalkeeper, defence and midfield.
The final piece of the jigsaw then will be to replace Connor Wickham with a physical striker capable of adding some bustle to the hustle provided either side by Defoe and Lens.
While names such as Moussa Sow have been mentioned in the press, such is the way on Wearside these days that there’ll be no confirming or denying anything until a player is handed a red and white scarf. One thing is for sure; if Sunderland make it to September with Advocaat’s seven signings in the tank, the Little General will have done magnificently indeed.