A new Premier League season is on the horizon once again for Sunderland, with the 2016/17 edition their 10th consecutive season in the top-flight of English football.
That statistic puts the Black Cats eighth in the league in terms of consecutive seasons spent in the top-flight out of all 20 teams currently in the division, an impressive feat upon first look, but when you consider the fact that all seven teams above them have participated in either the UEFA Champions League or the UEFA Europa League at some point during their stay in the top-flight it begs the question as to why Sunderland rarely seem to improve.
Since returning to the Premier League for the 2007/08 season, the highest position that the Wearsiders have ended a campaign in has been a modest 10th, achieved under Steve Bruce in the 2010/11 season. The club's best ever finish in the Premier League came with consecutive seventh placed finishes in both the 1999/2000 and 2000/2001 seasons, when fans would flock to watch a side including players such as a red-hot Kevin Phillips, who netted 44 league goals across the two seasons, as well as his towering strike partner Niall Quinn, who would later become chairman of the club.
It could be said that those seventh placed finishes under Peter Reid were the last time that other fans in the league took Sunderland seriously, with the club now being dismissed as perennial relegation strugglers that offer little competition nor entertainment value. At least not until the final few weeks of the season when the annual escape begins to take shape, and Sunderland fans celebrate surviving against the odds yet again.
Now under the guidance of former Manchester United and Everton boss David Moyes, Sunderland face an intriguing season as they look to consolidate themselves as a solid top-flight side, and avoid the nail biting finales that have become all too familiar in recent years.
An overview of 2015/16 - Wearsiders follow an all too familiar pattern
After helping the club survive with one game to go in the 2014/15 season, interim manager Dick Advocaat was convinced by Ellis Short to sign on the dotted line and become Sunderland's full-time head coach, signing what was intended to be a one-year contract until the end of the 2015/16 season.
This of course did not last, and yet another shockingly poor start to the season saw them in 20th place after no wins from their first eight games, leading to the resignation of Advocaat who stated that he felt "it was important to give everyone time turn things around" with the club facing yet another season of struggle, despite fans hoping prior to the season that this would not be the case.
In stepped former West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce, who actually enjoyed a spell as a Sunderland player during the 1980-81 season. Allardyce had 30 games to turn things around and keep the club up, with any real hopes of a dull season in mid-table written off as wildly unrealistic given just how poor and unprepared the Wearsiders appeared under the management of Advocaat.
Allardyce quickly targeted the fitness levels as a major area that required improvement, and despite losing his first match as manager 1-0 away to West Brom, his first win would come in his second match, which was a 3-0 triumph in none other than the Tyne-Wear derby.
Sunderland sat in 19th position at the turn of the year, with only three wins to their name and boasting a defence that still looked incredibly vulnerable, with that particular issue seeing the Black Cats concede 38 goals in the first 19 games of the season.
The turning point in the season however came in 2016 with the January transfer window, where Allardyce signed several players that would make a huge impact upon the team. Jan Kirchhoff overcame his horror debut at Tottenham to become arguably Sunderland's best player in the second half of the season, Wahbi Khazri added a combination of skill and aggression that was sorely missing in the first half of the campaign, and Lamine Kone became an instant cult hero thanks to his no nonsense approach to defending and partnership with Younes Kaboul, with the latter becoming an entirely different player in the second half of the season.
It was certainly a risk to sign players with no Premier League experience, but it was one that paid off handsomely as the aforementioned signings made an instant impact, with Sunderland losing just four league games in 2016 compared to the 13 lost in 2015. Allardyce made his side one that was difficult to beat, with points consistently picked up via draws against teams such as Arsenal and Liverpool as well as wins against Chelsea, Manchester United and finally the 3-0 victory at home to Everton that secured safety with one game to spare.
Sunderland's player of the season was undoubtedly Jermain Defoe, who proved his doubters wrong by excelling in an unfamiliar role as lone striker, scoring 15 league goals and leaving Advocaat wondering why he shunted him out on to the wing. An England call-up was unfortunately deemed a step too far for the 33-year-old, but Defoe certainly proved that he should still be considered as one of the best finishers currently playing in the Premier League.
What can we expect to see from Sunderland this season?
Since their return to the Premier League in 2007/08, Sunderland have never been seen as a particularly exciting team for the neutral to watch, a fact that Black Cats would not care about at all if it meant results had been going in their team's favour, but of course that hasn't quite been the case recently.
Last season saw Allardyce set his side up in a rigid 4-1-4-1 formation, with Kirchhoff the man utilised in the all important holding midfield role during the second half of the season whilst Defoe occupied the lone striker slot. Those two and a few others impressed in this system, and although Allardyce has now left the club that particular setup could well be seen again under Moyes, given how many points were gained from using this system towards the back end of the season.
One thing that Moyes will look to do as quickly as possible however is put his stamp on the team, and ensure that fans and pundits alike are under no illusions that Sunderland are now a side under the watchful eye of the Scotsman.
When it comes to tactics, Moyes is not too dissimilar to Allardyce in the sense that his teams are generally set up in a way that makes them difficult to beat, although the signs in pre-season thus far have been that the new manager may decide to use a 4-2-3-1 formation with a man playing in the hole behind the striker. This man could be an attacking midfielder such as Wahbi Khazri or Jeremain Lens, or could even be Fabio Borini, who has impressed in pre-season after being utilised in a more central role than the one he found himself in last season.
One of the key parts of Everton's play under Moyes was the link up play of wide men, with Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar a prime example of this, constantly using the overlap and dragging opposition defenders out of position. Pienaar is of course now training with Sunderland, and his previous experience with the new boss will be helpful as he tries to implement his style of play on his new players.
This will be music to the ears of one Patrick van Aanholt, who is a much better player when used as an attacking outlet rather than a defensive one, such is the ever evolving role of the modern full-back, now seen as a key cog in the machine rather than a throwaway bolt that was rarely noticed unless faced with a marauding opposition winger.
One man that will be glad to see his former manager again is Jack Rodwell, who was brought through the academy and into the first-team at Everton whilst Moyes was in charge at the Merseyside club. Rodwell made 85 appearances for his boyhood club before moving to Manchester City in 2012, a transfser that Moyes has recently claimed "wasn’t the right move" for the midfielder, who has since struggled for consistent form whether that be due to injuries or underwhelming performances in recent seasons.
Rodwell was originally seen as a central defender as a youth team player, but began to move into midfield as he forced his way into the first-team picture at Everton. Rodwell has been seen playing in the centre-back role during pre-season, and considering the club's lack of options in that position it may not be the last time that the 25-year-old is utilised as a defender for Sunderland.
The summer transfer window has offered little promise so far
After the runaway success that was the January transfer window, Sunderland fans were highly anxious to see which players would be next to come through the door before the start of the new season. That excitement has gradually become frustration however, with the FA's decision to appoint Allardyce as England manager putting a temporary halt on any incoming transfers for a period of time.
The solitary deal that the club have been able to get over the line as of now, is the £8 million transfer of Senegalese centre-back Papy Djilobodji from Chelsea. The defender spent the second half of last season on loan at Bundesliga side Werder Bremen, where he impressed at the heart of defence as Die Grün-Weißen ended the season in 13th place. The 26-year-old will provide competition for Kaboul and Kone, who were practically guaranteed their places in the team thanks to their only competition being the ageing John O'Shea, who is likely seen as emergency backup in a situation not too dissimilar to Wes Brown's position at the club last season.
A player that was said to be high on the agenda was fan favourite Yann M'Vila, who greatly impressed in his loan spell last season, leading to fans calling for those in power at the club to pull all the stops to sign the Frenchman on a permanent basis. That is a deal that is rumoured to be near completion for a fee of £5 million, a measly price to pay when you take into consideration the astronomical fees reportedly being paid for players that have barely featured for their clubs in the Premier League.
Charles N'Zogbia and Steven Pienaar are both currently training with the club, with there always being the chance of a contract offer if they impress the manager during pre-season. N'Zogbia is one that splits opinion, with his Premier League experience undoubtedly a valuable asset if his wages are not too extravagant, however his performances in pre-season have been of mixed quality and have left fans debating whether he is the kind of player that Sunderland should look to avoid if they wish to progress to the safety of mid-table.
In terms of outgoings, Steve Harper, Danny Graham, Valentin Roberge, Wes Brown and Steven Fletcher all departed the club on free transfers after their contracts expired, with none of the five likely to be missed greatly by the club who will be glad to move on players who have not featured consistently in the first-team in recent times.
Sebastian Coates extended his loan deal at Sporting Lisbon until the end of the 2016/17 season, whilst forgotten man Adam Matthews returned on loan to Bristol City, where he spent the final months of last season, until the end of the 2016/17 season. Will Buckley also left the club on loan until the end of the season, joining Sheffield Wednesday to link up with ex-teammate Fletcher, who signed for the Owls shortly after leaving Sunderland.
Whilst the club have not been able to move the aforementioned three on permanently as they might have hoped to do, sending the unwanted players out on loan will at least free up a portion of wage space, which can then be used on players that Moyes believes can improve the team and provide competition for as many positions as possible.
Santiago Vergini returned to his native Argentina at the beginning of July, signing for Boca Juniors in a deal worth around £1.5m, whilst Emanuele Giaccherini earned himself a transfer to Serie A outfit Napoli after his impressive performances at Euro 2016, with that deal worth just £2m thanks to the Italian only having a year remaining on his contract with Sunderland.
A player that is rumoured to be leaving the Stadium of Light in the near future is defensive midfielder Liam Bridcutt, who never quite hit the heights of his debut performance against Newcastle United and was shipped out on loan to Leeds United last season, with the Yorkshire club in pole position to land his signature on a permanent basis.
All in all it has been a worryingly quiet window for the Wearsiders, who will hope that they are able to secure a number of signings in various positions before the window shuts on 31 August. If they are unable to do so, then they face a long wait until January for fresh blood, and with the club's history of poor starts in recent years that is something that they simply cannot afford.
Sunderland unbeaten in pre-season despite paper thin squad
The higher ups at the club certainly learned from the less than impressive pre-season in the United States last season, this year choosing to remain closer to home by holding training camps in Austria and France, as well as playing a couple of games in England just for good measure.
It is no secret that the players were incredibly unfit at the beginning of last season under Advocaat, with the globetrotting schedule being placed in the firing line by fans who believed that playing matches in a country so far away was simply a cash grab and would have a negative effect upon preparations. This may not have been the sole cause, but it was certainly one of them as Allardyce discovered that the team he had inherited in October was statisically the most unfit in the Premier League.
This season however, the club sought to learn from their past mistakes by playing against teams that would gradually increase in terms of difficulty, beginning with a match against League Two outfit Hartlepool United and ending against 2013 Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund, who boast players of world class quality in the form of Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang amongst several others.
The players were quick to state how happy they were with their pre-season schedule this time around, and although this may mean little as they are hardly going to come out and openly criticise their manager even if they are unhappy with his methods, the proof followed as the club remained unbeaten throughout pre-season in a set of results that will certainly do them no harm.
The opening match of pre-season against Hartlepool was a no contest in truth, with the game all but over within 20 minutes after a brace from Defoe and a solitary goal from Khazri put the Black Cats 3-0 up. The result was not particularly important in truth, with the fact that Sunderland fielded two entirely different sides in either half an indicator that giving as many players as possible a run-out was the main aim.
Next up was a trip to Championship side Rotherham, who are now managed by former Sunderland defender Alan Stubbs, in what would be the first game to be played after the announcement of new boss David Moyes. The Millers provided a closer game than the trip to Hartlepool, but in the end a late winner from trialist N'Zogbia was enough to give Sunderland their second win of pre-season.
Moyes and his new side then flew out to France, where they would face Stade Nyonnais, Dijon and Montpellier before returning to the North-East of England for a short period prior to their final trip to Austria to face Borussia Dortmund.
Stade Nyonnais were defeated via a 2-0 scoreline thanks to two Duncan Watmore penalties, and Dijon were narrowly beaten 3-2 with goals from Khazri, Borini and 17-year-old Joel Asoro who was particularly impressive in what was his first appearance for the senior team. The winning run would come to an end against Montpellier as the two sides played out a 1-1 draw, with Borini once again on the scoresheet as he put forward his claim for the number nine role in the absence of the injured Defoe.
The final fixture would be the toughest against Thomas Tuchel's Borussia Dortmund, who took the lead through ex-Liverpool midfielder Nuri Sahin before a header from Lamine Kone in the second half ensured that a threadbare Sunderland side came away with a share of the spoils as the game finished 1-1.
The most frustrating part of pre-season for Moyes and his staff was undoubtedly the injuries picked up across the six games, with Defoe, Kirchhoff and Jones all doubts for the opening game of the season at the Etihad Stadium, a serious concern when the club have made such little progress in the transfer window thus far.
Which players should you keep an eye on this season?
Whilst Sunderland may not boast the quality of the elite sides in the Premier League, there are still a few players that could be ones to watch in the upcoming season. Naturally, the eyes of many will gravitate to the man who found the back of the net 18 times in all competitions last season, but there are a few players other than Defoe that could be in for an impressive campaign this season.
The first player that should be in for an impressive season if he stays fit is Jan Kirchhoff, who was arguably the club's best player in 2016 after moving to a holding midfield role, rather than the central defensive position he occupied on his long forgotten debut. It is no surprise that the German was purchased by the current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, as his range of passing and calm demeanour on the ball helped him to win over the fans that were so vocal in their displeasure at his debut performance.
Kirchhoff only appeared twice during pre-season however, with the recurring theme of injury preventing him from gaining more minutes before the season gets underway against his former boss. It is touch and go as to whether he will be fit for the season opener, but even if he does not appear in that fixture fans should expect him to stamp his authority in midfield as soon as he is ready to take to the field.
Another man that could find himself at the centre of attention this season is Dutch left-back Patrick van Aanholt, who overcame his defensive frailities in the earlier part of last season to become a vital tool in attack for his side under the watchful eye of Allardyce. Now under the management of Moyes, van Aanholt will enjoy the freedom to overlap the winger in a similar way to that of Leighton Baines under the Scotsman.
It is no secret that attack is the best form of defence in van Aanholt's case, with his blistering pace a vital asset in driving his side forward and putting them on the front foot. If his inconsistent final ball is worked on in training, then there is no reason why he can't rack up assists and chip in with goals as he did last season, netting four times and also having a further two chalked off as own goals by the dubious goals panel.
Currently the only senior left-back at the club, van Aanholt will be keen to prove that his real self was shown in 2016 rather than the months prior and that he earned the new four-year-deal that he signed at the beginning of June that ties him to the club until 2020.
Finally, a player that will be desperate to prove that he has what it takes to become an important first-team player for Sunderland is Jack Rodwell, who certainly has an interesting season ahead of him. Rodwell has struggled ever since leaving Moyes' Everton side in 2012, and now that he has been reunited with his former manager at the Stadium of Light, it will be make or break time for the midfielder as fans lose faith in the £10 million signing.
Overcoming his constant injury problems is the first step to redemption for Rodwell, but he must show the performances that had him held in high regard by coaching staff on Merseyside once upon a time if he is to change the fans perception of him up in the North-East. The 25-year-old has been deployed in defence over the course of pre-season, so whether Moyes is planning on returning him to his original position of centre-back or whether that was simply a stop gap remains to be seen, but it is likely that if Rodwell cannot rediscover his former self this season he may well find himself heading out of the door sooner rather than later.
Where do Sunderland's strengths and weaknesses lie?
One of Sunderland's biggest strengths is that they have a goal scorer of greater calibre than some of the sides in the top half of the Premier League table in Jermain Defoe. It came as no surprise that Defoe won the club's player of the season award after netting 15 league goals last season, sparking suggestions of an England call-up in time for the ill-fated Euro 2016 competition.
Several points were won thanks to the natural goal-scoring instinct that Defoe has possessed for his entire career, with his hat-trick against Swansea, winner against Chelsea and derby goal away at Newcastle springing to mind among many other decisive strikes. Defoe proved his doubters wrong by excelling in the lone striker role for Sunderland, and it is hard not to admire the confidence and calmness that the 33-year-old exudes despite having the weight of the city placed on his shoulders for much of the season.
Away from the front lines however, Sunderland remain a difficult side to beat, something that has not always been the case over the Premier League era with the infamous 15 point season a stain that still hasn't washed off despite it being a distant memory.
Perhaps stronger without the ball than they are with it, Sunderland possess many hard-working players that know how to remain rigid in their shape so as not to be pulled around the field when the opposition gain possession. A strong back line will likely be the foundations that Moyes will look to build his Sunderland legacy upon, as the envisioned progression towards the upper echelons of the Premier League cannot be achieved with a team that leaks goals as freely as the Black Cats did at the beginning of last season.
The imposing partnership of Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul is a key factor in the Wearsiders' defensive resilience, with their relationship on the pitch clicking instantaneously in the second half of the 2015/16 season. New signing Papy Djilobodji will provide competition in the central-defensive area, whilst in front of them Jan Kirchhoff and Lee Cattermole are well versed in the role as holding midfielder, with Cattermole offering more of a tenacious style of play than the calm and composed Kirchhoff.
No team is without its weaknesses however, and the most glaring chink in Sunderland's armour is the currently wafer thin squad that has been populated with several youth team players over the course of pre-season. A few injuries have not helped their cause, but the only thing that will rectify the situation is the addition of new players before the transfer window closes on August 31.
Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt are currently the only recognised first-team full-backs at the club, whilst up front only Jermain Defoe and Fabio Borini could be described as natural strikers, although the latter has found himself out on the wing for most of his Sunderland career. In addition to those positions, there is little cover in midfield with Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell almost guaranteed a starting berth in the middle of the park against Manchester City if Kirchhoff remains injured and no further signings are made before August 13, with that partnership showing Sunderland's lack of progression considering they have spent a combined total of nine years at the club.
Moyes has made a positive start with the signing of Djilobodji, but he will know that he must work tirelessly if he is to achieve the level of squad depth that will allow him to guide Sunderland out of their annual relegation battles and towards the simultaneously monotonous and relaxing atmosphere of a mid-table finish. Ellis Short has placed his faith in the manager that he tried to lure to the club an astonishing five times prior to his eventual appointment, with Moyes stating that he has been afforded "the keys to the door to go and do the job" by the Texan.
Which youngster could make the step up this season?
One thing that Sunderland are seemingly looking to do at the moment is bring through players from their youth setup, with the blueprint laid out by Duncan Watmore last season one that many of his former team-mates wish to follow in the not too distant future. Players such as Lynden Gooch, George Honeyman, Thomas Robson and Rees Greenwood have all made first-team appearances in recent times, and hopefully they will begin to appear for the first-team picture more and more over future seasons, as the Academy of Light has struggled to provide Premier League quality players at the rate the coaching staff had originally hoped it would.
The youngster that has impressed the most during pre-season however is 17-year-old Swedish striker Joel Asoro, who may not have been a name that was familiar with Sunderland fans until his goal and assist against Dijon. He also caught the eye of his manager in pre-season, with Moyes confirming that the teenager would continue to train with the first-team thanks to his impressive performances.
For those who may not have seen any of the pre-season matches that Asoro was involved in, the youngster's main strength is his raw speed that allows him to get in behind his man and through on goal in a similar way to players such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Jamie Vardy. Despite his youth however, the Swede remains incredibly calm in front of goal, as shown by his goal against Dijon where he opened up his body and placed the ball into the far corner of the net almost as if he was completely oblivious to the players snapping at his heels.
Even if it is deemed too soon for Asoro to become a first-team regular just yet, his manager may not have a choice come the beginning of the season if Defoe remains injured and signings are yet to come, with Moyes saying about his young players after the Dijon fixture: "as it stands just now, they might have to play in big games". It would certainly be refreshing to see another youngster burst onto the Premier League scene next season, and Asoro might just be the man to do that.
Final prediction - 14th - Moyes to create a platform for Sunderland to build upon
There is no doubt that this is yet another massive challenge for David Moyes in his managerial career, but with his past experience in an awfully similar situation at Everton all those years ago, Sunderland fans should be greeted with a less dramatic finish to the season than they have become accustomed to in recent years.
Signings are still desperately needed in several positions, with Moyes playing catch-up in the transfer market after the FA's pursuit of Sam Allardyce put the brakes on any activity earlier on in the window. Now that a transfer breakthrough has finally been made in the form of Djilobodji however, it would come as no surprise if a few more players were to follow him through the door in the next week or so, whether that be loanees returning on permanent deals or completely fresh faces.
Once again the goals from Jermain Defoe will prove vital to the cause, but if Moyes can sign another striker in order to remove some of the immense pressure that currently rests on Defoe's shoulders then his goals will not be the be all and end all for the Wearsiders.
The first ten games will likely shape Sunderland's season as they have done in the past, and as long as they get points on the board early on they will at the very least avoid having to play catch-up with the rest of the division for the remainder of the season. Fans shouldn't expect any Leicester-esque heroics from the Black Cats this season, but they can look forward to a season that effectively finishes with their team securing their Premier League safety a few weeks earlier than usual.