MARTIN O'Neill heads into a new season with Sunderland admitting that his Black Cats squad still requires major rebuilding work before this month's transfer deadline.
O’Neill says he needs four new players before the transfer window shuts at 11pm on Friday, August 31, identifying a lack of cover in both full-back slots and a need to sign both a goalscorer and a pacy midfielder as issues to be addressed over the next 13 days.
And, while the Sunderland boss insists he is still upbeat ahead of a new campaign that begins with a trip to the Emirates to play Arsenal, he is open about the fact that his squad lacks strength-in-depth. Today’s opponents are in the headlines after selling top scorer Robin van Persie to Manchester United but it is striker issues closer to home that are exercising O’Neill’s mind.
He has been foiled in attempts to sign Steven Fletcher from Wolves and, while Sunderland have added
veteran forward Louis Saha, O’Neill says that the striker will not be expected to play every game.
In a candid admission on the brink of the new season, O’Neill said: “We need to be competitive and our squad is definitely not strong enough. So far our things haven’t been (cut and dried) but in an ideal world it’d be great to get all of our targets in.
“We were accused somewhere of not having a Plan B, but I have a number of options somewhere along the way and I’m trying as best as I can to get the players I need.”
Pressed on the number of players he feels Sunderland require to get to a point where they can be “competitive”, O’Neill attempted to steer clear of offering up a definitive number.
He does not want to clash with owner Ellis Short, but there are four clear areas that he feels need to be improved.
“I don’t want to end up being a raging headline – I may have to have some sort of onerous conversation with my owner after that,” he said.
“But we need to strengthen the squad because I look at the squad and realise it would be affected by a couple of injuries.
“Bardo (Phil Bardsley) is out for a while and we may have to look at that position, he’s the only real right-back we have. We need a proper left back and I was hoping to inject a bit more pace and trickery into the team and add all of that to a striker.”
Naturally, O’Neill is holding fire on setting his Sunderland side any targets until his recruitment drive is completely finished.
“That will depend on the quality of player we bring in,” he said.
“We want to aim as high as we possibly can and that’s what we’ve been doing.
“I know what we need to do, and I’ve been working on that every single day. It’s not a problem, it’s my job. I intend to get the players in – otherwise it will be tough.”
Saha’s capture has helped Sunderland and the striker will be included on the bench today as the Black Cats look to hand Stéphane Sessègnon lone forward duties at the Emirates, where they are one of seven Premier League teams never to have tasted victory.
Sunderland had been interested in Saha earlier in the summer but O’Neill felt that the striker might be holding out for interest from Ligue 1. When it became apparent he wanted a move to England, the Black Cats boss swooped to recruit a player who is seen as an experienced head to help out a crop of unproven forwards.
It does not mean that he has given up on Fletcher, though.
“With Louis Saha coming in that’s fine, but there’s only a certain amount of games you can expect him to play,” said O’Neill. “It hasn’t prevented me from chasing the players I want to bring in.”