By Scott Wilson

Head of Sport

FROM the moment he began to turn his thoughts towards the new season, Phil Parkinson had a crystal-clear idea about what he wanted to do with his Sunderland defence.

Keep Jordan Willis, re-sign Bailey Wright and persuade Tom Flanagan to sign a new contract. Throw in Arbenit Xhemajli, who should make his Black Cats debut in tomorrow’s EFL Trophy tie with Aston Villa Under-21s after joining from Neuchatel Xamax last week, and you have the makings of a backline that should make Sunderland as defensively secure as anyone in League One.

Turn to the other end of the pitch though, and things are in much more of a state of flux. Sunderland have bid £500,000 for Mateo Bajamich, but it is far from clear whether Parkinson regards the Argentinian youngster as ready for the first team or an addition with half-an-eye on the future. Danny Graham has been linked with a Black Cats return throughout the summer, but having left Blackburn Rovers as a free agent, the North-Easterner has been battling to regain his match fitness. At this stage, it is hard to know whether he has won that fight.

Then, of course, there are the two senior strikers currently on Sunderland’s books. Charlie Wyke was Parkinson’s preferred option for most of last season, but while he generally led the line effectively, the Teessider has made 61 appearances in red-and-white and scored just 11 goals. One goal every six matches is not going to cut it in the third tier.

At least with Wyke, though, you generally know what you are going to get. Will Grigg, on the other hand, remains Sunderland’s great enigma. More than a year-and-a-half after completing the move from Wigan that made him the most expensive League One signing in history, Grigg remains better known for a song and his starring role in a Netflix documentary than anything he has done in a Sunderland shirt.

His display on Saturday, as Sunderland crashed out of the Carabao Cup, was effectively his Black Cats career in microcosm. It started reasonably brightly, with an early disallowed goal that should probably have stood, and there were sporadic flashes of promise throughout. Ultimately, however, the Northern Irishman failed to deliver because, when the key moment arrived and he stepped up to take the first penalty of the shoot-out, he was found wanting.

It would be harsh to admonish Grigg too vigorously for his miss – anyone can fail in a shoot-out – but having produced an otherwise effective performance full of enterprise and effort, it was hardly a surprise when the 29-year-old became the villain of the piece. For whatever reason, it simply hasn’t worked for Grigg at Sunderland so far. Parkinson has to ponder whether that is likely to change.

“He (Grigg) deserved a start today, and I thought some of his movement and runs were great,” said the Sunderland boss. “He’s as fit as he’s been for a long time. He’s getting into those dangerous areas. He’ll feel aggrieved he hasn’t got a goal, and obviously the penalty will hurt because as a striker, he prides himself in those pressure situations.

“For me, it was important he wanted to take one. He put himself up, and we put him on one because he’s a goalscorer and has taken penalties through his career.

“It was a disappointing penalty, I don’t think anyone can argue with that, but there’s always got to be a fall guy in that situation. Unfortunately, it’s Will, but I don’t want that to knock him because he’s in a better place than at any time since he’s been at the club.” Does that mean he should start when the real action begins against Bristol Rovers this weekend? Time will tell, but with the start of the League One season now just five days away, it feels as though solving Sunderland’s goalscoring puzzle will hold the key to dictating the club’s fortunes this season.

At the other end, the signs from the weekend were promising. Apart from saving a penalty – and in fairness, he had precious little chance with any of Hull’s efforts - Lee Burge did everything that was asked of him as he stepped up to replace Jon McLaughlin in goal.

Willis, Wright and Flanagan picked up where they had left off in the closing stages of last season, when they had begun to gel effectively, and in Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume, Sunderland boast a pair of wing-backs who are more than good enough for League One.

“I didn’t have a save to make,” said Burge. “That shows just how good of a unit and a team we are defensively. We all know what to expect from each other, and we’re all good communicators. We’ve just got to make sure we keep doing that over the next few months.”

Sunderland’s midfield functioned effectively, especially in the first half when the hosts carved out sufficient chances to have won. Max Power seemed to enjoy playing in a more prominent position than last season, with George Dobson filling in behind, and debutant Aiden O’Brien showed two or three flashes to suggest he could be an exciting addition. The move that saw him roll the ball backwards to beat two Hull defenders was a highlights reel by itself, although the scuffed shot that followed a few moments later when he was free in the box was disappointing.

“Aiden was good,” said Parkinson. “He offers something different, he’s energetic and can be unpredictable in a good way. He played with good energy and set the press off, which is so important.”

O’Brien should be a good foil for Chris Maguire, who was his usual lively self at the weekend. However, while the pair will offer a threat from attacking midfield, they are unlikely to be scoring 20 or 25 goals a season. Sunderland need to identify the player who can do that, whether it be Grigg, Wyke, Graham, Bajamich or someone else. Find that final piece of the jigsaw, and the push for a place in the Championship could really be on.