Key Player: James McClean
In: Carlos Cuellar
Out: Asamoah Gyan
When Martin O’Neill took over in mid-season there wasn’t much to like about Sunderland. Under the Northern Irishman the Black Cats managed to pull their season out of a tailspin, but they also bored you to death in the process. One exception to a style that makes “defense first” into a credo was the young Republic of Ireland player, James McClean, who was both inventive and ambitious on attack. He was usually involved in whatever Sunderland did that was exciting up front and it remains a mystery why his time in Euro 2012 was so limited, especially on a very poor Irish entry.
McClean’s development is crucial for Sunderland if they are to do more than tread water this season. O’Neill is a master tactician and motivator, so Black Cats fans don’t need to worry about relegation, but when Asamoah Gyan decided that he preferred the Persian Gulf to the Northeast of England (could it be the weather?) the return of the on-loan striker evaporated. Gyan might have been just the partner that McClean needed to turn something special up front. Instead, O’Neill will have to conjure something else while making certain that his defenders never go further than 18 yards from their own goal.