It's Derby Day! Middlesbrough host Sunderland at the Riverside Stadium for the Tees-Wear Derby.
Middlesbrough and Sunderland have had a turbulent start to the season. Middlesbrough went into this season with clear aspirations. They wanted to get promoted to the Premier League. However, the side's early form has been short of the mark. The club is currently in the bottom half of the division after just one win in seven games. Wilder's side has struggled with the same issues throughout this period. They have been great in transition, dominating midfield and creating chances, but issues at both ends of the pitch have prevented them from getting their just deserts. Their difficult start on the pitch has been paired with a mixed transfer window. Middlesbrough did recruit wisely at the start of the window, but despite their best efforts, they enter this season light in a few key areas. Wilder has spoken about dipping into the free agent market to cover these problem areas, so hopefully, that will do enough to patch up the squad.
On the other hand, Sunderland has had an impressive start to the season. The Mackems have stamped their authority on the league early on with three wins, two draws and a defeat. Sunderland's current form places them in 8th. However, the club has had to deal with off-the-pitch controversy. Their manager Alex Neil decided to leave Sunderland to join Championship rivals Stoke City just six games into the season. The Scottish manager had built a rapport with the Sunderland faithful after helming the side to promotion. However, his decision to abandon ship for a longer-term contract for a side with a more consistent history in the Championship has left a bitter taste in their mouths. Nonetheless, Sunderland swiftly replaced Neil with former Middlesbrough defender and manager Tony Mowbray. The Mackems' change in management should make the clash an even more tasty affair.
The difference in quality between League One and the Championship is huge, so it is up to newly promoted sides to bridge this gap with summer recruitment. Sunderland has been no different. The club has let seven players depart, making space for ten new arrivals.
Sunderland has made swift work of cutting out some of their ageing stars. Aiden McGeady, a brilliant servant for the club over a six-year stretch interlaced with a loan to Charlton, has departed for Hibernian in the Scottish Premiership. While there is no doubting his technical ability, at 36, it is not wise to rely on him to take on a consistent key role in the Championship. An evaluation has been proven true by his unfortunate injury at the start of his stint with Hibernian.
Sunderland has also moved Will Grigg on. The 31-year-old striker is as famous for his song as his impressive performances at Wigan. However, he struggled to catch on fire at the Stadium of Light. His less-than-stellar return of eight goals in 61 appearances resulted in double loans leading up to his contract expiry this summer. However, since arriving at MK Dons, Will Grigg has looked like he is capturing his former glory with two goals in six appearances. Regardless, Will Grigg and Sunderland was not a match made in heaven, and it was best for both parties to go their separate ways.
Meanwhile, Sunderland has made some intelligent acquisitions this summer. The recruitment of Jack Clarke for an undisclosed fee stands out as an intelligent piece of business. The 21-year-old has struggled to establish himself at Tottenham Hotspur, which resulted in his loan transfer to Sunderland last season. However, he impressed on the Wear earning a permanent move following the Mackems' promotion. Clarke has also hit the ground running at Sunderland this season, scoring two goals and supplying three assists to the cause.
Leon Dajaku followed a similar trajectory into the Sunderland squad after also making the temporary switch last season. The former Union Berlin forward could be a dangerous proposition in the Championship once he recovers from his injury.
Amad Diallo deserves a mention too. The Manchester United prospect has joined the club on a season-long loan. Manchester United fans are well aware of his potential, and while he failed to capture it at Rangers, there is every possibility he could do so at Sunderland.
The transfer of Abdullah Ba may go under the radar alongside some of their other recruits, but he could be their most exciting arrival. The 19-year-old defensive midfielder has joined from Le Havre. The Ligue 2 side is renowned for producing incredible young talents, including Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Benjamin Mendy. Abdullah Ba has garnered positive interest from fans and football specialists alike for his performances in France. So it is not out of the question that he will join the widely decorated starlets that have left Le Havre and found a home at the top of European football. However, he is a risk. Ba is still a developmental player and may not feature all that frequently this season, but if he continues on his current trajectory, they could have a serious talent on their hands.
Will Grigg to MK Dons (free)
Daniel Ballard from Arsenal (£2.07m)
Arbenit Xhemajli to FC Vaduz (free)
Jewison Bennett's from Herediano (£1.17m)
Aiden McGeady to Hibernian (free)
Abdoullah Ba from Le Havre (£900k)
Lee Burge to Northampton Town (free)
Leon Dajaku from Union Berlin (£783k)
Carl Winchester to Shrewsbury Town (loan)
Ali Alese from West Ham (£531k)
Jack Diamond to Lincoln City (loan)
Jack Clarke from Tottenham Hotspur (undisclosed)
Jordan Willis (free agent)
Alex Bass from Portsmouth (undisclosed)
Amad Diallo from Manchester United (loan)
Edouard Michut from PSG (loan)
Elis Simms from Everton (loan)
(all transfers and sums are accurate as per: https://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/afc-sunderland/transfers/verein/289)
Sunderland has also used this window to safeguard the club's future. Their permanent departures' average age was 29.4, and the average age of their arrivals was 21.6. This astute planning for the future has pushed them to be the division's fourth youngest side. At the same time, the talent they have acquired should also help them with their aspirations in the short term.
Last Time Out:
Sunderland comes into this game in considerably better form than Middlesbrough, having cooped three wins and two draws in seven games. One of the Mackems' wins came last time out against Rotherham United.
Rotherham United are a perfect case study for the gulf between League One and the Championship. The Millers have spent the last six seasons with one foot in one league and one foot in the other. A yo-yo club in every sense of the word, they are favourites for relegation once more this season. Although Rotherham is not the most difficult team they will face this season, it is a marker for where they stand in relation to the other promoted sides. A convincing 3-0 victory certainly indicates that they're a step or two above their fellow newly promoted side.
It was also Tony Mowbray's first game in charge of the club. The former Boro centre-back was officially announced head coach at 10 pm the night before in order for him to take charge of the match. However, Mowbray admitted that the victory had little to do with his influence. Instead, he emphasised the effect of the coaching staff left behind from the previous regime. Mowbray will look to continue with much the same backroom staff at the Riverside Stadium, with the addition of assistant Mark Venus.
Sporting Directors play an integral role in the successes and failures of a club despite their seemingly elusive role within the hierarchy. The role can have a range of responsibilities depending on the club and the owner's priorities. Taking a top-down perspective on a club hierarchy, a Sporting Director is the man in the room that understands the footballing side of the business. Their work can take on many forms, but their most public work comes in recruitment. They will take on advice from coaches and scouts, but ultimately, they decide who to propose to the club owners and will take an active role in bringing that recruitment to fruition. Sporting Directors are paid to be decision-makers, and their increasing influence on the modern game has coincided with marked improvements in teams' recruitment strategies.
Kristjaan Speakman's arrival at Sunderland was interesting as he has limited experience in such a role. However, his appointment indicates the diverse options in the Director of Football role. Speakman has spent the majority of his career in the youth development side. He started as a coach in Birmingham's academy before stepping into a more administrative role as Academy Manager.
Speakman's influence is clearly visible in this summer's transfer business. The club's focus on under-21 recruitment has certainly been influenced by his association and connection with youth development. At the same time, his eye for talent and encouraging continuity within the club has resulted in some players with very high potential agreeing to move to the Black Cats. If these transfers bare fruit for Sunderland, then Speakman deserves a portion of the praise. Meanwhile, the club's focus on Sporting Director recruitment over managerial recruitment meant that the side wasn't left with a squad dictated by a manager that had departed early in the season.
The former Birmingham City administrator was tasked with an even busier transfer window as it would have fallen to him to find a replacement for the departing Alex Neil. It was important that the club found some continuity in the style of play and experience in the Championship to help secure their future in the league and potentially beyond. In Tony Mowbray, Kristjaan Speakman managed to tick both of these boxes.
Style of Play:
The recent appointment of Tony Mowbray means that it is hard to judge the style of play that Sunderland will play under his tenure. While he has taken the helm for his first game of the season, by his own admission, the outcome was more a result of the work prior to his appointment rather than after it. Despite these limitations and the small sample size, it is possible to make some statements about what shape the side's general play will take.
Kristjaan Speakman's success in recruiting a like-minded manager means there will be more continuity than differences between the two tenures. Alex Neil brought transition football to Sunderland. While not letting the opposition get too comfortable in possession, Sunderland often opted to allow their opponents to have the ball. Then, once they were in possession, they would initiate a direct attack. As a result, the side doesn't linger on possession. Instead, they charged at the opposition while they were out of position. Despite playing a direct style of play, Neil's side refrained from long balls, instead moving the ball around with short, intense passes, often looking for the give and go in order to get in behind the defence.
The side's attacking patterns are likely to be tweaked under Tony Mowbray's guidance, but this attacking play will, in all likelihood, remain at the Stadium of Light. However, Mowbray, despite being a defender by trade, has made a name of himself as an aggressively attack-minded manager. Unfortunately, his offensive-first mentality has come at the cost of defensive security at other clubs. Still, it will make for a more exciting spectacle as out-scoring the opposition became a frequent policy at Blackburn Rovers. Mowbray will want his sides to dictate the ball more than seen under Alex Neil, but aside from a few tweaks, he is likely to follow the defensive blueprint set out by Alex Neil.
Mowbray's style of football has seen many attacking players flourish, with Blackburn Rovers often topping the top goalscorers charts. Ross Stewart and Jack Clarke hope he can implement a similar style at Sunderland as their impressive record already indicates that they would make for a clinical set-up.
It is impossible to talk about Sunderland without mentioning their prolific talismanic striker. Ross Stewart has been a revelation for Sunderland. The Scotsman joined the Black Cats in January 2021 from Ross County after just two goals in 19 games in the first half of the season. The deal demanded nothing upfront but a promotion clause in the contract as been activated following their arrival in the Championship, forcing the club to stump up a 6-figure fee. There are several other clauses in the Ross Stewart transfer deal, which mean that the side will have to spend further sums if they remain in the Championship or sell Ross Stewart.
Even with the previously mentioned clauses, this deal was a steal for Sunderland. Since he arrived in League One, Ross Stewart has made 73 appearances and scored 34 goals. While his form last season, his first and only full season in League One, saw him stump up an impressive 26 goals. Unsurprisingly, his form in the 2021/22 season has resulted in interest from a plethora of Championship sides. Yet, Sunderland was able to keep hold of their star man past the summer transfer deadline.
Ross Stewart has hit the ground running his season. The Scottish International has contributed five goals and three assists in his first seven league appearances. A goal every 126 minutes is a lethal strike rate; at this rate, he is set to score 30+ goals in the Championship. However, suppose he continues to perform at this level. In that case, he could be set for another January transfer as those clubs previously interested find the sum needed to make him their player.
Stewart is a prolific advanced forward with an aerial presence. He spearheads the attack and gets involved with build-up play with the seventh most passes per 90 in the side. Stewart's one key pass per game, two assists, and solid but not spectacular 70% pass completion indicate that he looks for the forward pass when in possession. His forward-first passing style sets him apart from other advanced forwards in the league that often opt for the safe, simple pass into midfield which can slow down play and allow the opposition to settle into their defensive lines.
Unsurprisingly, it is in and around the box where he truly comes into his own. He is particularly effective when playing on the shoulder of the last man. Stewart often adopts an arched run to get in behind the defensive line. Then, when he gets one-on-one with the goalkeeper, he looks to place his shots in one of the corners. Yet, his efficiency in front of goal is what makes him so brilliant. So far this season, Stewart has scored 1.1 more goals than expected (per xG), showing how clinical a finisher he is.
Sunderland further weaponised their attack this summer by signing Jack Clarke. The Leeds United academy graduate has had a difficult couple of seasons following his big-money move to Tottenham Hotspur. He would fail to make the grade in London, making just four senior appearances. Instead, he saw action in a quartet of loans, including Sunderland in the back half of last season.
Tottenham was expecting big things from Jack Clarke when he joined for £9.9m, with the club permitting the winger to stay at Leeds United to develop during the following season. However, whether he got complacent after a big money move or felt the pressure, he failed to recapture the form that had earned him the interest in the first place, out of the first team by January, having made just three appearances for Leeds before he was displaced and moved to QPR. The move instigated a run of failed loan transfers, with Tottenham Hotspur feeling increasingly exasperated by his seeming lack of development. In January 2022, Jack Clarke left Tottenham Hotspur on his final loan to Sunderland. However, Spurs may have been considering cutting their losses at this point.
Despite only scoring once and providing three assists across 20 appearances, Jack Clarke impressed the Sunderland hierarchy enough to consider taking him on a permanent deal. However, it was likely the reduced 'everything must go!' transfer fee that sealed the deal (undisclosed transfers are often used to conceal a low transfer fee compared to what the selling club once invested in the player).
Jack Clarke may have struggled in recent seasons, but everyone recognised that he was still a talented player. The question was whether he could tap into it again or fall into the same footballing purgatory as the likes of Ravel Morrison. So the transfer proved a risk for Sunderland, but signing him at a cut price has minimalised that risk.
It is too early in the season to make a sweeping judgement on the success or failure of signing Jack Clarke. However, Jack Clarke has begun to repay Sunderland for putting their faith in him. He has featured in every game this season and has already contributed going forward, doubling his one goal and matching his three assists from last season. This is closer to the form that earned him his move to the capital and could result in him regaining favour with pundits and fans alike.
This early form indicates that he is at his best in a settled environment. The 6-monthly moves prevented him from making roots in the local area and adjusting to that team and his teammates. Jack Clarke has already spent time in the area at the back end of last season, which has helped him to become settled in the area to hit the ground running. Additionally, Clarke's four-year deal at the club means that, aside from another transfer, his foreseeable future will be with Sunderland giving him the confidence to settle in the area.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 2-1 Sunderland
It should be a great game with a fantastic atmosphere, but Middlesbrough should have just enough to keep all three points at the Riverside.