It's been a relatively slow start to the transfer window for Sunderland with goalkeeper Simon Moore the only incoming so far.

However, sporting director Kristjaan Speakman has explained the Black Cats have identified a number of areas to improve the squad this summer, with quality the focus rather than quantity.

One area that is desperate need of attention, is the heart of midfield, more specifically, a designated number six or defensive midfielder.

READ MORE: What Régis Le Bris said at first Sunderland press conference

This week, we will be taking you through a different area of the squad, looking at their individual contract situations and assessing where Le Bris needs to strengthen. We'll even throw in a few suggestions of potential names they could look at, just for fun!

In part four we're taking a look at that central midfield position.

Dan Neil

One of Sunderland's stand out performers last season, Dan Neil should be one of the first names on the teamsheet again this season. The Black Cats are hoping to extend his stay at the Stadium of Light having held talks with the Academy of Light graduate.

Neil played in a deeper role last season, but there's a general agreement that he would fare better higher up the pitch with a designated number six behind him.

Interestingly, Le Bris mentioned taking in some more training sessions before deciding what roles players would play next season. The French head coach kept his answer vague, not referring to individuals, but it was the central midfielders he specifically mentioned

Le Bris suggested a 4-3-3 would be his formation of choice next season, and Neil should be one of the first names on the teamsheet.

Sunderland midfielder Dan Neil was one of the Black Cats' standout performers last season.Sunderland midfielder Dan Neil was one of the Black Cats' standout performers last season. (Image: Ian Horrocks)


Pierre Ekwah

French midfielder Pierre Ekwah had an indifferent campaign in 2023/24. On his day, he can be untouchable, but the difference between his best, and worst performances are stark.

He's one who Le Bris needs to get more out of on a consistent basis, but he, like Neil would also benefit from a number six operating in behind him so he can operate as a ball carrying midfielder higher up the pitch.

Le Bris has spoken about his Sunderland side being energetic in the press and getting the ball up the pitch quickly. Ekwah isn't necessarily the quickest, but his physical prowess in the middle can be a key weapon in the Black Cats' armoury this season.

READ MORE: 5 things from Regis Le Bris' Sunderland press conference

Jobe Bellingham

Jobe Bellingham another player who needs his position to be defined. Interestingly, Le Bris said he knew exactly which position Jobe would play next season, but he'd have conversations with the player before revealing all to the media.

The England youth international is attracting the attention of Premier League club Crystal Palace, with Sunderland said to be holding out for a fee in the region of £20million. If they do keep him at the Stadium of Light for another season, a run of games in one constant position will only help push that asking price higher, especially if he's able to add to his goal contributions from last season.

Having played as a striker at times, it'll become clearer from Sunderland's pre-season friendlies which position Le Bris sees him in next year. Operating as a second striker in the number ten position, or as a number eight in a midfield three seem to be the best fit from a personal point of view.

Sunderland midfielder Jobe BellinghamSunderland midfielder Jobe Bellingham (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Chris Rigg

Sunderland's starboy signed his first professional contract at the Stadium of Light this summer, a three-year deal, fending off interest from the Premier League and some of Europe's giant clubs.

Interestingly, Le Bris referenced Chris Rigg's role in his first press conference, saying he's more of a number eight or ten.

The 17-year-old played the majority of his games out on the right-wing for Sunderland last season but the French coach didn't rule out the possibility of him even becoming a number six in the future.

His energy, awareness of the details in training have caught the eye of Le Bris so far. He's one to watch next season having already established himself as a first-team player.

Adil Aouchiche

Aside from Jobe and Nazariy Rusyn, Adil Aouchiche looked the most ready for Championship football of Sunderland's signings last season. 

We've seen flashes of quality from the Frenchman, but the mental side of his game and concentration was something that was questioned under previous coaches.

A number 10 by trade, it'll be interesting to see what role he plays under Le Bris, who has in the past played with two 10s in a 3-4-2-1. Early suggestions hint to a 4-3-3, but the make-up of that midfield trio remains to be decided.

"Adil like me, we've had many experiences since our work together at Lorient," Le Bris told We are Sunderland. "It'll be very interesting to watch him in the next game and see how he has evolved during this period.

"We'll see if he could be an interesting player for the team."

READ MORE: Lorient's relegation and why Regis Le Bris shouldn't be judged - yet

Jay Matete

Jay Matete is one who needs an impressive pre-season. Having had a torrid bit of luck with injuries so far, the midfielder has actually played his best football away from the Stadium of Light on loan with Plymouth in 2022/23, but is set for a clean slate under Le Bris.

His energy in the heart of midfield is something that could appeal to the new head coach, but his fitness remains a bit of a concern. If he can stay fit, there's no reason he can't stay around this season and play a key part - maybe even being the answer to the number six void.

Elliot Embleton

Academy of Light graduate Elliot Embleton is another who is set for a make or break pre-season. Having had his own torrid bit of luck with injuries, he's one who'll be keen to impress Le Bris and show he can play a part this season.

The jury remains out on him after his recent setbacks, but pre-season will provide us with a better indicator about his future.

Sunderland midfielder Elliot EmbletonSunderland midfielder Elliot Embleton

Academy prospects

Of Sunderland's academy prospects, Caden Kelly is probably the closest to bridging the gap to the first-team. He's currently training with the first-team under the watchful eye of Le Bris and is capable of playing on either flank.

After impressing for Sunderland U21s last season, he's in the final year of his contract and has caught the eye of a number of National League sides. A loan move could be in the offing for him this season.

Harrison Jones is another promising talent who impressed for Graeme Murty's U21s. The club activated the option for a further year in his contract and is reportedly in talks over a new deal.

He's another who could be given the opportunity to impress in pre-season, with a loan move away from Wearside another possibility.

READ MORE: Sunderland's Chris Rigg from those who know him best

Potential transfer targets

It would be remiss of We Are Sunderland not to focus on that holding midfield role. One player that's caught our eye in recent months is Lincoln City's Ethan Erhahon.

Widely expected to leave the Imps this summer for a club record fee - surpassing the £640,000 Huddersfield Town paid for Harry Toffolo in January 2020.

City boss Michael Skubala has gone public with his declaration, expecting Erhahon to leave Sincil Bank, he told BBC Radio Lincolnshire: “For me, he’s the best number six in the league by a mile.

“We’ll probably struggle to hold on to him, if I’m honest. But what a player he is - and he’s growing all the time.

“You forget he’s only 22. He’s so young. He’s got such a huge desire to win and throughout the season he’s been magnificent."

His radar from StatsBomb also makes for impressive reading.

Lincoln City's Ethan Erhahon is one of League One's top performing defensive midfielders.Lincoln City's Ethan Erhahon is one of League One's top performing defensive midfielders. (Image: StatsBomb)

The Scottish youth international ranks highly for his Defensive Actions OBV, turnovers, aerial win percentage and rarely gives the ball away. A number of Championship clubs are said to be keen on his services and Sunderland should be acting quickly on this suggestion.

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Former Sheffield United midfielder Ollie Norwood has been linked with a move to the Stadium of Light. A two-time promotion winner to the Premier League with the Blades, he's someone who would bring some much needed Championship experience to a young squad.

An eye for a killer pass, Norwood would be a shrewd piece of business on a free transfer having left Bramall Lane at the end of his contract.

Another midfielder who's a free agent this summer, and maybe a slightly ambitious suggestion, is former Coventry City playmaker Callum O'Hare. A shrewd operator in the number ten role, the 26-year-old will likely be a target for lower end Premier League clubs and has been linked with a move to Celtic in recent days, but would bring a sprinkling of magic in the final third if the finances made sense.