Sunderland 2016 Review: Black Cats use another of their nine lives to escape the drop, but has another poor start left them needing one more?

2016 has been an eventful year to say the least with an abundance of positive and negative news dominating the press over the past 12 months, both sporting and non-sporting. In the world of the Premier League it has been no different, with arguably one of the greatest shocks in football history taking place this year as Leicester City became champions of England.

For Sunderland, 2016 has represented a year of struggle and has borne similarities to past years, with managers coming and going, loan signings playing a starring role before failing to return despite immense speculation, and of course the seemingly annual drama that results in an escape from relegation as the rest of the division asks the question - when will we finally get rid of them?

Big Sam took risks in the winter transfer window that paid off handsomely

The beginning of 2016 saw Sunderland sitting in 19th place in the Premier League with a total of three wins to their name. Their defence was a major cause for concern, leaking 38 goals over the first 19 games of the 2015/16 season and that meant that manager Sam Allardyce had to delve into the transfer market to solve the problems plaguing his side.

Allardyce opted to sign players with no prior Premier League experience in Jan Kirchhoff, Wahbi Khazri and Lamine Kone from Bayern Munich, Bordeaux and FC Lorient respectively and for relatively cheap prices at that with Kirchhoff a particular bargain, costing the club just £750,000 from the Bundesliga champions.

Wins against Aston Villa and Swansea got the year off to a great start, with seven goals scored across those two games showing that Sunderland perhaps had the firepower to get themselves out of trouble thanks to Jermain Defoe netting five of those seven goals.

However a crushing 4-1 loss away to Tottenham Hotspur would bring the Wearsiders crashing back down to Earth in a game that Kirchhoff will since have attempted to erase from his memory, with the German giving away a penalty and seeing his half hearted attempted at a block deflect a Christian Eriksen shot into the top corner after coming off the bench to make his debut.

One Jordan Pickford made his Premier League debut at White Hart Lane that day, and he showed a glimpse of what he is capable of with several top drawer saves with the scoreline not reflecting the England international's performance on the day.

The rest of the winter remained tough on Wearside, both weather wise and results wise with opportunities to gain points at home against Bournemouth and Manchester City wasted as they gained just the solitary point from the two matches.

Bright spots did include a home victory against Manchester United that saw Khazri net his first goal for the club, as well as a late comeback from 2-0 down at Anfield to secure a point against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, with Defoe the man grabbing the equaliser late on.

Off-field issues dominate the press but Allardyce keeps his side plugging away

Unfortunately for Sunderland, it was the off field indiscrections of one Adam Johnson rather than his on-field performances that dominated the headlines nationwide. Johnson opting to plead guilty in his trial shocked both fans and management staff, with Allardyce previously stating that Johnson would be available for selection during his trial with the club under the impression he would be fighting against the charges he was faced with.

A swift contract termination followed and although the club hoped that would be the end of that, it was never going to be that simple. Allardyce ensured that his players did not lose their focus however and set about gaining as many points as possible in order to climb the table, even if drawing matches became the aim rather than going all out to win them.

Zero wins across five games looks an appalling record at first glance, but when four of those games ended in draws it ensured that the Black Cats did not stray too far from the pack. An away draw in the Tyne-Wear derby ensured that their relegation rivals Newcastle did not begin to pull away from them and although Aleksandr Mitrovic's late equaliser dampened the mood amongst Sunderland fans on the day, they could not deny the importance of avoiding a loss against a team so close to them in the table at the time.

A home loss against eventual champions Leicester was a blip on their record, but that defeat would prove to be Sunderland's only one of their final 11 matches as they once again came up trumps when they needed to.

A crucial 3-0 away win against fellow strugglers Norwich City effectively condemned them to the dreaded drop mentally, and a home draw against Arsenal coupled with a last gasp equaliser in the form of a penalty against Stoke City ensured that Sunderland began to look as if they might just escape the drop yet again with the final spot either theirs or Newcastle's to occupy going into the final few weeks.

The home game against a Chelsea side that endured an awfully poor campaign given they had won the division the season before proved to be the turning point for Allardyce and his men. With Newcastle travelling to Villa Park to face whipping boys Aston Villa it seemed as if the odds favoured the Magpies going into the 37th match week of the season.

Going 1-0 down early on to Diego Costa was a bitter blow for the hosts who really needed a victory in order to stay with Newcastle, who were expected to secure all three points against the already relegated Aston Villa. Khazri's stunning volley levelled the scores and the Stadium of Light experienced a kind of euphoria not seen for some time, but that was soon silenced as Nemanja Matic breezed past the defence to restore the Blues' lead on the stroke of half-time.

The second-half of the match was ultimately what kept Sunderland up, with a quickfire pair of goals from Fabio Borini and then Defoe seeing the Black Cats win 3-2 and overtake their North-East rivals who slumped to a disappointing 0-0 draw to Aston Villa and thus handed the advantage over to Sunderland.

A thumping 3-0 home win in the rearranged midweek game against a self-destructing Everton side saw Sunderland's safety confirmed as well as costing Roberto Martinez his job on Merseyside, and Allardyce could finally sit back and relax knowing that he had completed the job he arrived to do with a game to spare.

Dreams of stability shattered as England come calling

After watching Allardyce guide the club to safety as he was brought in to do, Sunderland fans could be forgiven for thinking that they had finally found the man to turn them into the respectable mid-table team that they had tried and failed to become in the past.

The FA however had other ideas. After England's shock exit to Iceland in Euro 2016, Roy Hodgson vacated his position as the national team's manager and Allardyce was drafted in to take over, meaning Sunderland had lost yet another manager although this time not by choice.

The fact that Allardyce's reign as England boss saw him take charge for just one match before resigning in the wake of an undercover sting, before recently taking the helm at relegation rivals Crystal Palace was rubbing salt in the wounds for Ellis Short.

So out went Big Sam and in came David Moyes, a man whom Short claimed he had approached several times previously regarding the Sunderland manager's job in the past but had been turned down by the Scotsman. This time though Moyes grasped the opportunity to manage in the Premier League once more after his ill-fated spell at Manchester United in 2014.

Sunderland left it late in terms of transfers over the summer despite being linked with all kinds of players from across the globe, and funnily enough their first signing of the window was a man they had not been mentioned in the same as breath as prior to the surprise announcement of £8m Chelsea centre-back Papy Djilobodji

The Black Cats would go on to sign Paddy McNair, Donald Love, Steven Pienaar, Victor Anichebe, Mika and Didier Ndong on permanent deals, with Ndong breaking the club's transfer record in a deal worth £13m. Fan favourite Yann M'Vila did not rejoin the club as fans initially hoped, and his revelation recently that he did not wish to return to the Black Cats was a kick in the teeth for a team that remain awfully short on midfielders.

Loan signings included Moyes' surprise hit at Old Trafford Adnan Januzaj as well as Manchester City defender Jason Denayer and Atletico Madrid full-back Javier Manquillo. Perhaps more importantly however were the contract extensions for Vito Mannone, Patrick van Aanholt, Lamine Kone and in particular Jermain Defoe, whose 15 league goals in 2015/16 almost kept the club up single handedly.

Several squad players left the club on free transfers whilst fees were commanded for Emanuele Giaccherini, Santiago Vergini, Liam Bridcutt, Younes Kaboul and Jordi Gomez.

Wearsiders still paying the price for worst start in Premier League history

Despite the lack of transfer dealings, fans were optimistic at the beginning of the season that with Moyes at the helm they would see a team defensively resolute in a way not too dissimilar to that of Allardyce's side, and hoped that would see them to mid table mediocrity for a change of pace.

They would be very, very wrong. Moyes may have narrowly lost 2-1 away to Manchester City on the opening day of the season, but a combination of a paper thin squad and injury problems meant that an unsettled and relatively inexperienced side would go on to lose eight from their opening 10 games, equalling Manchester City's worst ever start to a season with just two points from the opening 10 matches.

The next eight games would see a major improvement in performance from a side who looked as if they may not win a game all season, as they won two on the bounce against Bournemouth and Hull City thanks to the potent strike partnership of Defoe and Anichebe.

Two wins and four losses from the following six fixtures leaves the club currently sitting in 18th place in the Premier League table, with Swansea and Hull the two sides propping up the table as things stand. The 3-0 away defeat to the Welsh side was a blow that Moyes will hope does not come back to haunt his side come the end of the season, with the Swans now direct relegation rivals despite sacking two managers already this season.

Perhaps the worst news for Sunderland fans in the latter stages of 2016 however, is the news that due to the club's situation with regards to debt levels, owner Ellis Short will not be affording Moyes any transfer funds for the winter window as Short looks to sell the club on to new owners.

Considering that Aston Villa went down with just 17 points after they were the only side not to recruit in January last season, you would have thought that Short would be willing to supply Moyes with the funds to improve his already wafer thin squad in order to improve Sunderland's chances of survival.

Moyes was under that impression too, saying that he "did expect to be able to do some business in January" and that he now feels misled by the owner given the situation the club now find themselves in.

Sunderland have managed to surprise both everyone and no-one with their performances in 2016, and it seems like the best they can hope for in the first half of 2017 is another dramatic escape from relegation.

Fans will be hoping however that the latter half of the year will pan out slightly differently than it has done in the past few years, but the club may be facing their toughest battle yet in the new year.