How does one preview the first game when there has been close to a 50% squad turnover in the close season? It is nigh on impossible, but the core, the backbone of the team has remained unchanged in many ways. We will have Gyan as the main predator, Sessegnon picking up the pieces, Cattermole tapping at everyone’s heels and a Bramble/Turner centre back pairing, and after looking at the recently-revealed squad numbers, Craig Gordon between the sticks, provided he stays fit.
It appears that John O'Shea will not feature (hamstring), but look for Wes Brown at right back, and he will be motivated against the red half of Merseyside. But since we do not know Bruce's best team, aside from the back four, I will not guess the complete line-up
SAFC’s squad numbers are: 1 Craig Gordon, 2 Phil Bardsley, 3 Asamoah Gyan, 4 Michael Turner, 5 Wes Brown, 6 Lee Cattermole, 7 Sebastian Larsson, 8 Craig Gardner, 9 Fraizer Campbell, 10 Connor Wickham, 11 Kieran Richardson, 14 Jack Colback, 15 David Vaughan, 16 John O’Shea, 17 Dong-Won Ji, 18 David Meyler, 19 Titus Bramble, 20 Keiren Westwood, 21 Oumare Tounkara, 22 Simon Mignolet, 24 Trevor Carson, 26 Jordan Cook, 27 Ahmed Elmohamady, 28 Stephane Sessegnon, 29 Anton Ferdinand.
The main influx has been in midfield, and it is great that we have at least 2 guys who are capable of 10-goal returns, both Gardner and Sessegnon. However, a note of caution, Steed Malbranque hit 10 goals in his first season with Fulham, and he hardly troubled opposition keepers in his last 2 seasons with the Black Cats.
Understandably, Steve Bruce has been talking up the acquisition of Sessegnon, as read in the Sunderland Echo: The Black Cats boss knew he was signing a top-class player when he persuaded the club to part with £5m back in January for the services of the Paris Saint-Germain attacker. But he has been thrilled at the quality of the Benin International since his arrival on Wearside, so much so, he has no qualms about talking up the player’s prospects.
He told the Echo: “I think he has the potential to go on and become one of the all-time greats at this club. I know that sounds like a heck of a burden to put on the shoulders of a young player who is just starting out here. But I wouldn’t say it if I thought it would faze him and I know he is the type of character who’ll take it all in his stride.”
“He’s been fantastic since he got here and he’s getting better and better. He’s got great vision, pace, an eye for goal and an excellent temperament and some of the things he’s coming out with in training are unbelievable. I’m very excited about him and I’m hoping we are going to see the best of him next season.”
The 27-year-old scored three goals in his final five games for Sunderland last season after being switched to a more attacking role and has kept up that sort of form with three goals in pre-season games this summer. It’s the sort of attacking fluency that has convinced his manager that Sessegnon’s best position is playing just behind the main striker.
Bruce said: “When Stephane first arrived here he came as a left winger who could adapt to a couple of other positions. But sometimes, you just hit lucky and with Stephane we were forced to throw him up front because of the lack of other options towards the end of the season. He was a revelation there and along with Jack Colback he was our best player towards the end of last season. It’s no flash in the pan either. He is excellent in that position, as he’s shown in pre-season. So we’ll look to use him regularly in a 4-4-1-1 formation.”
For those hawk-eyed readers of this blog, you will have spotted that my review of the second half of the season somehow got lost in that haze of cheap plonk, sunblock and occasional sunshine that we call summer. Unfortunately I still remember it, and for those who need reminding, it was rubbish. Another bleak winless winter run, 10 players out, and a late burst for the relegation zone that I thought we had moved on from. Then 3 wins from the last 5, including decisive victories at the Reebok and Upton Park brought us in to 10th spot, the highest for a decade.
Behind those late wins was the driving force of Stephane Sessegnon, who scored 3 times in 3 games. We should not forget Bolo Zenden’s excellent goal at Bolton either, which gave us something to defend, but the articulate Dutchman has gone now. Add in the Benin International’s 3 pre-season goals and we could again become the sort of team who outscores the opposition, rather than relying on a solid defence.
Whether we will outscore Liverpool is another matter, but we are all happy that the new season is upon us. We now know what to do on a Saturday afternoon…
©Lars J.S. Knutsen
Follow ESPNsoccernet's Football Correspondents on Twitter