Remember Sunderland from last season? That is the exact same Sunderland team you're going to get this season.
While people around football have spent the last decade complaining about the amount of money in the game and the lack of loyalty, the Black Cats have turned amazingly retro. They have signed just two players all summer, defender Carlos Cuellar and striker Louis Saha, and both came on free transfers. As of August 16, Sunderland have not paid for a single player all summer.
But if this year's Martin O'Neill Sunderland is the same as last year's Martin O'Neill Sunderland then the Black Cats will be just fine. They were dreadful early in the season under Steve Bruce, but he got the axe and O'Neill turned the squad around.
For the first two months under O'Neill, Sunderland was as good as any team in the league. From December 11 until February 10 they lost just two matches in all competitions and went from relegation threatened to challenging for a spot in the top half.
As is his M.O., O'Neill didn't do anything fancy. The team played in a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2, was compact at the back and pretty much proved every stereotype of British football, but it was mighty effective.
Sunderland allowed just 46 goals last season and should be just as tough in defense with the same defensive-minded approach. Their question is what do they do for goals.
Whoever O'Neil turns to up front will be key. Asamoah Gyan has made his move to Al Ain permanent and Nicklas Bendtner's loan is up, leaving the Black Cats without much at striker. Whether it is Saha, Frazier Campbell or a possible signing -- Jermain Defoe and Steven Fletcher have both been linked to Sunderland -- the team will only go as far as whoever plays up top takes them.
Goals will be tough to come by at the Stadium of Light for both teams and that is probably fine for the Black Cats. It is important to keep the club's stature in perspective and maintain realistic expectations. It was only a decade ago that they finished with just 19 points and were sent down. Now they are working on their sixth straight season in the top flight and that alone is an accomplishment.
O'Neill may not thrill anyone, but his teams get results and this Black Cats team should get enough results to be right there in the middle of the table. That is plenty good at Sunderland.
Last Year: 13th, 11 W, 12 D, 15 L
This Year: 9th
Key player(s): Stephane Sessegnon was fantastic last season, turning in eight goals and nine assists on a team that scored just 45 goals all year. Sitting in the hole underneath whoever started up top, Sessegnon was asked to do almost all of the creative work for Sunderland and he did. This season, he'll be asked to do exactly the same and if he isn't just as good as he was last season then the team will be completely devoid of imagination.
SB Nation blog: Roker Report.