Premier League

6 Players Sunderland Must Build Around

 • by James Nalton
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When a team looks set for relegation their attention turns to next season and the things they’ll need to do in order to bounce straight back up.

Though they’ll never admit it publicly, many managers and clubs in this scenario will have an idea of their fate long before relegation is mathematically confirmed and will start planning for the inevitable.

They’ll want to keep hold of their best players but these can often be poached by other Premier League clubs. So they have to asses their current squad and ensure that a spine of quality remains in place for the next campaign.

Sunderland will be aiming to repeat the feats of rivals Newcastle United who have confirmed promotion back to the Premier League with a 4-1 win over Preston North End on Monday night.

The summer sales of Georginio Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko for a combined £55 million gave their manager, Rafa Benítez, money to play with. But he was also able to retain a few players who have been key to helping them return to the top flight immediately.

Here are six players the Black Cats will do well to keep hold of ahead of in the Championship next season.

Jordan Pickford

Pickford is widely considered one of the best English prospects around and the 23-year-old local lad, born down the road in Washington, will have plenty of Premier League suitors as his side slip down a division.

However, if none of these clubs can offer him first team football – which is never a guarantee with young goalkeepers, especially English ones – then he might be better off giving Sunderland at least another season as they attempt to bounce back up.

He’s the only rock in a defence which has looked shaky all season, which is reflected by the fact he’s made the second most saves in the league with 106.

Centre back Lamine Koné impressed last season – with the Black Cats rejecting an offer from Everton – but has struggled to continue that form this campaign. Alongside him, Papy Djilobodji has often been the scapegoat for some poor defensive performances.

A defensive rebuilding job may be needed this summer and if any clubs still value Koné then money from his sale could provide funds for new blood. But the Wearsiders will do well to keep their stopper and build this new unit around him.

Sunderland striker Joel Asoro in EFL Cup action against Shrewsbury Town

Joel Asoro

The 2017/18 campaign could be the season for Sunderland’s 17-year-old Swedish attacker to step up a level.

He’s played just nine minutes of Premier League football this season but is highly regarded at the Academy of Light and at international level.

Teammate and fellow Swede Seb Larsson has spoken highly of Asoro and believes he has a bright future.

“I knew about him even before he broke through with us,” said the 31-year-old.

“The first time I saw him was when he broke through. He made a real impression, not just on the manager, because we saw a boy who was prepared to work really hard and he has the talent too.”

Asoro is a pacy attacker who could cause no end of problems to Championship defences next season.

Moving down a division means he’s likely to see more chances come his way, and he could be the wildcard in the Sunderland team if they need to surprise an unsuspecting opposition rearguard.

Sunderland midfielder Didier Ndong in Premier League action against Liverpool

READ MORE: UNPICKING SUNDERLAND’S DISMAL SEASON

Didier Ndong

The Gabonese international signed from Lorient last summer for £15 million. While he’s not always lived up to the price tag, he has shown plenty of glimpses to suggest there is a player in there.

He’s been Sunderland’s best passer this season with a success rate of 84 per cent. Still only 22, he has plenty of improvement left in him and a good season in the second tier could see him begin to recoup the money paid out for him.

His physical attributes will also be useful in a division which contains a variety of teams varying in quality and playing style and he could become an N’Golo Kanté-like figure in the Championship.

Duncan Watmore

Currently sidelined with a bad knee injury which will require surgery for the second time, Sunderland have missed Watmore’s input in the latter half of this season.

His relentless work-rate and unmatchable pace have been absent from an otherwise one-dimensional attack which revolves around the goals of Jermain Defoe – who is sure to leave the Stadium of Light this summer.

Whether or not Watmore will be ready for the start of pre-season – in light of his second round of surgery – remains to be seen. But there is a hope the England Under-21 international could flourish at a lower level and build on the promise he has shown in the past couple of seasons.

He attempts 1.8 dribbles per game, the second most at the club, and is also the third-most fouled player winning 1.6 free-kicks per game on average. It is those sort of statistics which make him an exciting player and Sunderland need as many of those as they can get.

Lynden Gooch

Relegation can be the making of younger players deemed not quite ready to make their mark on the division above. California-born Gooch will be hoping he is a beneficiary of Sunderland’s return to the second tier.

The American international, who has two caps for the USMNT despite featuring for the Republic of Ireland at Under-18 level, has made 12 appearances for the Black Cats this season.

However, an ankle injury suffered at the end of 2016 halted his progress and he has failed to feature for David Moyes’ side this year.

Capable of playing anywhere behind the main striker – though naturally a number 10 – Gooch will hope for further opportunities under Moyes who is clearly a fan of the 21-year-old.

“We really like him, he’s infectious, and he’s a good character,” the Scot said in December.

“I spoke to him a few weeks ago and said I thought his levels had just dipped a little. But that would be normal for a young player when you think of the games we asked him to play in and the position the team had been in.”Sunderland Premier League stats for the 2016/17 season

READ MORE: SUNDERLAND STUCK WITH DAVID MOYES DESPITE DROP

Fabio Borini

The Italian striker has played Championship football before, albeit only for a short period, scoring six goals in nine matches on loan at Swansea City in 2011.

That season ended in promotion as the Swans, under current Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers, won the play-off final. A repeat at the Stadium of Light next season would be most welcome.

Fourteen-goal top scorer Defoe will not be short of offers this summer and is even back in the England fold after more than three years away.

Asked whether Defoe would be considered for selection for the 2018 World Cup, England manager Gareth Southgate said: “If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be [selected].”

The key phrase there is ‘Premier League’ and a clause in Defoe’s contract allows him to leave on a free transfer when Sunderland are relegated.

While Borini will also have hopes of an international return – having won one full cap for the Azzurri – a return to form is needed first.

The former Liverpool striker scored seven times in 25 Premier League starts while on loan during the 2013/14 campaign. But since signing permanently in an £8million deal last summer he has bagged just seven times in the league. Dropping down a division might be just what he needs to reignite a stalling career.

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