Sunderland’s goalkeeping department has undergone a major overhaul this summer as the club adjusts to life outside the Premier League.
Jordan Pickford and Vito Mannone departed for pastures new, with free agent Robbin Ruiter and £500,000 stopper Jason Steele replacing them at the Stadium of Light.
Ruiter has played two pre-season games during a successful trial spell before signing a permanent deal, while ex-Blackburn Rovers keeper Steele has played twice, in the 5-0 drubbing to Celtic and then in last Friday’s season opener against Derby County.
Steele started the campaign in goal, but the battle for the No 1 spot remains intense and very much up for grabs – an intriguing selection dilemma for Sunderland boss Simon Grayson, who also has Mika and Max Stryjek in reserve.
With pre-season over and the new campaign in its infancy, we assess the duo’s performances so far for the Black Cats ahead of tomorrow night’s first round Carabao Cup game at League One side Bury.
The 26-year-old has been handed the No 1 shirt at Sunderland, but he knows he faces a battle to retain his place in the side – with latest signing Ruiter breathing down his neck.
The former Middlesbrough academy product endured an afternoon to forget on his debut.
Steele picked the ball out of his net five times against Celtic, with Steele culpable for two of the goals.
It was a nervy start to his Sunderland career, understandable perhaps given he’d only briefly trained with his new team-mates, but it was a concern for supporters given the high standards set by Pickford last term.
Honest Steele admitted it was “tough”, but, to his credit, he bounced back well in the Championship curtain raiser against Derby – one first-half fumble aside.
His strengths include his shot-stopping, agility, reaction and quick reflexes and his vast experience of playing at this level, something Sunderland lack in their ranks currently.
Steele is shorter than Ruiter and doesn’t command his area in the same way the Dutchman does, with it noticeable against Derby how many times he stayed close to his line for set-pieces.
There are also question marks over his distribution. He did, though, make a vital save late on to deny David Nugent, Steele out quickly to close down the danger.
Grayson has a welcome headache when it comes to team selection.
While Sunderland remain short in other areas, notably central defence and out wide – with another striker on the wishlist too – he does at least have strong options in goal.
Ruiter is many fans’ pick for the No 1 spot after excelling in his two games on trial.
The 30-year-old was superb in friendly games against both Bradford City and Scunthorpe, making important saves late on.
Vocal Ruiter caught the eye with the command of his area, confidently coming to collect the ball from corners and set pieces. His distribution also impressed, pin-point accuracy over long distances.
He doesn’t have any experience of the Championship, but should Ruiter be handed the gloves against Bury and impress, then Steele will have his work cut out to get them back.
Steele fared much better in the draw with Derby and, given he did little wrong, it would be harsh on him to be dropped for the next Championship game.
There is every chance Ruiter will be given a run-out against Bury in the cup, but don’t be surprised to see Steele returned to the side for the Sunday lunchtime kick-off at Norwich City.
Sunderland, at least, have strong options.