FOR Sunderland, a new year really has meant new beginnings. Goodbye Stewart Donald, hello Kyril Louis-Dreyfus. Farewell Phil Parkinson, welcome to Wearside Lee Johnson. The burning question now is whether, come May, the Black Cats will also be swapping League One for the Championship.

Off the field, the effects of Louis-Dreyfus’ proposed takeover should begin to become clear in the next few months. The EFL’s formal ratification process is nearing completion, but there are still so many unanswered questions when it comes to the likely impact of the boardroom reshuffle.

Why has Louis-Dreyfus decided to become involved with an English League One club when he had plenty of alternative options scattered across Europe? To what extent will Donald and Charlie Methven remain involved in Sunderland’s key decision-making? How radical will a promised behind-the-scenes overhaul be, and how much scope is there for transformative investment anyway given the existence of the League One salary cap?

For now, many Sunderland supporters will simply be content that the acrimonious Donald era is at an end, but is this merely a case of shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic or is the youthfully enigmatic Louis-Dreyfus the fresh new leader the Black Cats so badly require? Time will tell, although the arrival of new money, with a stated willingness to spend it, must surely be a good thing. As ever, spending it wisely will be the challenge.

There will be investment into the squad this month, but it will be limited by the parameters of the salary cap. Johnson could not sign a batch of experienced players if he wanted to, but mindful of the need to put his own stamp on the squad quickly, the new head coach will almost certainly be looking to make at least two or three additions, primarily in the attacking areas. Expect to see the loan market utilised, with a focus on Premier League youngsters aged 21 or under who do not count towards salary-cap calculations. Unearth a couple of gems, and Sunderland’s prospects in the second half of the season could be transformed.

The squad as it currently stands should be good enough to remain in the promotion race. Defensively, Sunderland are as good as anyone in the division, especially once you factor a fully-fit Jordan Willis into the centre-half mix. The midfield boasts plenty of options, although a lack of pace and creativity is a handicap that has hampered both Jack Ross and Parkinson, and which will also limit Johnson’s options unless it is addressed. Sunderland have plenty of midfielders that run around willingly and pass the ball sideways – they could do with someone whose first thought is to break forward to support whoever is in front of them.

That central striker is currently Charlie Wyke, and while the Teessider is hardly a prolific goalscorer, he has proven himself a better option than either Danny Graham, who has been bitterly disappointing, or Will Grigg, who could be sidelined for nine months anyway. Unless Johnson can sign a proven centre-forward this month – an unlikely scenario given the financial constraints he will be working within – the Black Cats boss has to find a way of increasing his side’s attacking threat with Wyke in the side.

Last month’s 4-1 win at Lincoln proved Sunderland are capable of striking effectively on the counter-attack, with Jack Diamond providing the kind of energy and drive that was rarely apparent under Parkinson. Unlike his predecessor, Johnson appears willing to actually play his youngsters rather than merely talk about them.

Whereas the Lincoln game provided plenty of cause for optimism, last weekend’s goalless draw at Northampton was something of a reality check, exposing Sunderland’s weaknesses when facing a side that is not really interested in taking them on.

Breaking down obdurate opposition at the Stadium of Light has been a problem ever since the Wearsiders dropped into the third tier, and it will be interesting to see how Johnson addresses it. Getting more players into the opposition’s area, something he has already flagged up, would be a start. It would only make a difference, though, if the service to those players was also improved.

Whatever improvements Johnson can make over the next few weeks, a couple of key unknowns will remain. The first relates to the long-term effects of Sunderland’s Covid outbreak, which will be an issue throughout football but which could be especially acute on Wearside given the way in which coronavirus ripped through the club’s playing squad.

The second related issue is that Sunderland are facing a fixture pile-up that will worsen if they continue to progress in the Papa John’s Trophy. The rearrangement of Saturday’s game with Hull helps, but the Black Cats cannot afford to see any more of their matches fall by the wayside, whether through Covid, the weather or opponents progressing in the FA Cup.

Ross’ hopes of winning promotion in his first season were badly damaged by fixture congestion. Fingers crossed the same thing does not happen to Johnson.