20 Premier League Previews in 20(ish) Days: Sunderland

Stadium: The Stadium of Light (capacity: 49,000)

Manager: Dick Advocaat (2nd season)

Nickname: The Black Cats

2014-15 Record: 38 points (7-17-14), 16th place in the Barclay’s Premier League

20 Premier League Previews in 20(ish) Days: Sunderland

If the old adage about a cat having nine lives is true, the Black Cats have used most of that luck up by now. For three straight seasons they have endured harrowing finishes where they just barely escaped relegation from the Premier League.

Luckily they were able to convince the manager behind last year’s latest turnaround: 67 year old Dutchman Dick Advocaat, to stay in England after he considered retirement following last season. Advocaat had an undeniable impact after taking over for Gus Poyet (the man behind the previous year’s miraculous run) in March and under him they earned 12 points (three wins) in their last nine matches.

It was not spectacular, but for a team that was tied for dead last in Premier League goal scoring (31 team goals) it was just about the best possible scenario.

Even more importantly last season they won both Tyne-Wear derby matches against bitter Northeast rivals Newcastle United. The latest two wins extended their winning streak over the Magpies to five games. That’s the longest such streak by Sunderland in the 132 year history of the derby.

Since returning to the Premier League in 2007 Sunderland’s highest finish was 10th place in 2010-11, but generally they have finished in that 13th to 17th place range just above the relegation zone.

The Black Cats are not a small club and have spent more than a trivial amount on transfers the last few years, but have an abysmal record. They have in the last four years brought in players like: Steven Fletcher, Jozy Altidore, Danny Graham, Emmanuel Giaccherini, and Jack Rodwell who were all bought for at least £5 million and have ranged from disappointing to awful.

So while Sunderland do not have the history or resources of a Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City or the top clubs they have still underperformed the last three seasons.

New Faces: Sebastián Coates- centre back (Liverpool), Adam Matthews- right back (Celtic), Jeremain Lens- winger/striker (Dynamo Kyiv), Younès Kaboul- centre back (Tottenham Hotspurs)

Last season the top goal scorer in all competitions for the Black Cats was a tie between Jordi Gomez and Connor Wickham with six goals. So unsurprisingly the most expensive purchase of the offseason was £8 million for Dutch international winger/striker Jeremain Lens, who’s scored 53 goals since 2010 with PSV and Dynamo Kyiv. Lens was also on the Netherlands’ World Cup squad and scored five goals during their 2014 World Cup qualification matches. This is also a reunion of sorts for Lens and Advocaat, as the two were both at PSV during the 2012-13 season.

Sebastián Coates, a Uruguayan centre back, barely featured last season on loan from Liverpool early on under Gus Poyet. But he was an integral part of the Black Cats defense when Advocaat took over and got his first real run of consistent play since coming over to England in 2011 from Urguayan club Nacional.

The other two permanent signings who will be with Sunderland this year: Younès Kaboul and Adam Matthews are also defensemen. Kaboul was Tottenham’s club captain last season and made 111 total appearances in North London. Adam Matthews, a Welsh international, made 150 total appearances since joining Cetic in 2011. Matthews also made appearances each season in either the Europa League or Champions League. Considering Celtic is the most consistently high profile Scottish club recently (sorry Rangers it’s been a rough few years) and a team that will always play in European competitions, the lure of the Premier League must have been too much for Matthews to resist.

On paper Lens could be the solution to the Black Cats’ goal scoring problems from a year ago or at least a more consistent threat to score than some of his new teammates. But he’s hardly a proven commodity at this level and Sunderland’s track record almost makes you preemptively second guess guys before they have even put on a red and white jersey. And this isn’t entirely fair because Kaboul and Matthews I think are 2 solid signings that will strengthen a defense that had its moments a year ago.

Consider that the Black Cats did keep 10 clean sheets a year ago and the permanent addition of Coates and the two new additions won’t make the defense worse.

Familiar Faces: Lee Cattermole- defensive midfielder (1 goal in 28 total appearances), Connor Wickham- striker (6 goals in 40 total appearances), Patrick Van Aanholt- left back (1 goal, 33 total appearances), Costel Pantillimon- goalkeeper (31 total appearances), John O’ Shea- defensive midfielder/centre back (43 total appearances), Jordi Gómez- central midfielder (6 goals in 33 total appearances)

Before I talk about anyone else, I want to say that as a somewhat biased fan I loathe seeing Lee Cattermole and his tucked in shirt every time I watch Sunderland play. I still think he’s also a dunce for saying in 2014 that there was “something seriously wrong” if Sunderland got relegated and Crystal Palace did not. However, he is an incredible talisman of his club and one of the more underrated defensive midfielders in the Premier League. You can never question Cattermole’s effort and more often than not he’s been the Black Cats’ most consistently effective player.

John O’Shea, the club captain and Dutch international Patrick Van Aanholt anchor a defense that game in and game out was solid but not spectacular. The Black Cats’ numbers were skewed somewhat by the season’s worst defensive performance by any team: an 8-0 loss at Southampton.

Under Advocaat the defense was clearly a lot better and in three of the final four matches of last season, they kept a clean sheet.

Costel Pantillimon, the Romanian longtime Manchester City backup, joined Sunderland last season and by November was the first choice keeper. Given his first consistent run of first team football in England, Pantillimon actually looked fairly solid.

A lot of the players who were disappointing for Sunderland last season were in the midfield or forwards group. Adam Johnson and Seb Larsson were two well-established Premier League midfielders going into last season, but both were at least somewhat disappointing and Johnson is currently dealing with criminal charges that he had sex with a 15-year old girl.

Jordi Gómez, a Spaniard who previously played for Wigan Athletic, had one of his best seasons since coming over to England. Gomez tied for the team lead in goals (6) but ended the season with a knee injury which is a concern.

While the midfield was somewhat disappointing, Sunderland’s strikers were Karl Oyston’s haircut awful. The most effective goal scorer was Jermain Defoe who joined via a trade that sent Jozy Altidore to Defoe’s former club: Toronto F.C. in Major League Soccer. Defoe had 4 goals in 19 appearances after his return to England.

Connor Wickham, who tied with the aforementioned Gomez for most goals, is young enough (22) that one could still see him improving. But Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham should both be worried about their place in the club after having awful seasons last year.

Completely Unscientific/Somewhat Unbiased Predicted Finish: 17th

I don’t want to speak for Sunderland supporters in this space, but I have to imagine they would just love for this year to not feature another desperate relegation fight. The last three seasons have been the kind of seasons that take years off of a supporter’s life. Unfortunately I don’t see Sunderland doing well enough this year to be clear of a late season relegation fight.

The brief period where Advocaat was manager did look quite promising. With an exception or two, he was able to make the Black Cats into a team that was difficult to score on. I believe getting Coates to come in permanently along with the other signings has at least made this a better defense for the coming season.

But goal scoring is going to be an issue. I have zero faith that the combination of Graham, Fletcher, Defoe and Wickham is going to produce the necessary goals. Signing Jeremain Lens is intriguing, but he is going to face a big step up in competition from his previous stops in Ukraine and the Netherlands.

If Advocaat can get the Black Cats at least consistently defending well, then the lack of scoring options won’t be as pronounced of a problem and plenty of teams in the past have survived the Premier League with pedestrian goal scoring threats.

Advocaat has to prove that unlike his predecessors Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet, he isn’t simply good for a month or two but can get consistent results over an entire season. I would say Advocaat’s decision to postpone retirement signals he believes he can do just that.

SUNDERLAND, UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 20 : (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE)     New Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat during a Sunderland AFC training session at The Academy of Light on March 20, 2015 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images)