Martin O'Neill has secured the services - initially on loan - of former Rennes captain Kader Mangane. We sought some expert opinion to tell Sunderland fans all they need to know about him.
Like us, when Sunderland landed giant Senegalese defender Kader Mangane from a club in Saudi Arabia, your initial response was probably one of 'who?'.
Sadly, we were not really able to answer many of the questions that Sunderland fans were asking us about him because, in all honesty, we don't actually know all that much about anything.
So we went out and found someone who could answer those questions and more, and quite frankly we hit the jackpot. At this point allow me to introduce Mr Bastien Leclair. As well as being a Rennes fan himself, Bastien writes for Stade Rennais Online and can also be found imparting his expert analysis on French football to the seriously good (and prominently English) French Football Weekly.
So let's hand you over to Bastien so he can teach us all about Kader Mangane.
It is probably fair to say that until last week Kader Mangane was not a name with which Sunderland fans were too familiar. In terms of a general overview of him as a player, what can you tell us?
Bastien: When he first arrived in Rennes, and although he had had some experience as a centre-back during his time in Switzerland, Mangane was more used to play as an anchor midfielder for Lens. When he and Lucien Aubey were sold to Rennes for a total of 5M€, the Lens fans seemed quite amused that Rennes would want to spend money on those players.
Mangane, in particular, was generally seen as a clumsy midfielder, counting on a big physical presence to make up for his technical limitations. This sort of confirmed itself during his first few games in Rennes, until our then coach Guy Lacombe decided to pair him with Petter Hansson at centre back.
As a centre back, Mangane immediately found his place as a key player in Lacombe's tactics. A 6ft 6in man-mountain, he is virtually unbeatable in the air and also able to run with reasonable pace. His partnership with Hansson, a robust and tactically aware defender, although a slow runner, was arguably the best centre-back pairing Rennes has seen in the last two decades
Technically, Mangane often looks like your typical, gigantic no-nonsense defender, but he can also hold the ball and clear it cleanly to his team-mates. While his technique might have been a bit too basic to play effectively as a centre-midfielder, it is more than enough to be effective as a centre-back while bringing his presence further up the field.
And this is another particularity of Mangane. He likes to join the attack when he senses the smell of blood, and he doesn't only follow the big-defender "header on a corner-kick" routine: he has been spotted controlling the ball, turning and placing it past the goalkeeper with the clinical precision of a seasoned striker. Even better: his goals are often happening in the crucial matches, so keep an eye on him next time you play against Newcastle!
I think it would be fair to say that he achieved a certain degree of notoriety for his tackle on Jonathan Lacourt that left the Valenciennes midfielder with a badly broken leg and Mangane himself with a lengthy suspension. Talk us through that whole saga. Was it is bad as it sounded or somewhat blown out of all proportion?
Bastien: This will always remain the one horrible memory linked with his years at Rennes. There wasn't any bad intent in that tackle, but everything about it was appalling. Mangane was incredibly late, Lacourt's studs were firmly planted in the floor, and the tackle literally shattered the Valenciennes player's leg.
This was something very similar to the whole Shawcross/Ramsey story a few years ago. Bad fortune turned a strong challenge into a horror injury but ultimately, Mangane's lack of control and his reckless challenge are entirely to blame.
After receiving a two-month ban, he was terribly missed by Rennes, especially in the French Cup final, where individual defensive errors cost us the chance of a first trophy in nearly forty years. But when you consider it took Lacourt more than three years to return to professional football, Mangane's two month-ban wasn't that much and certainly deserved for an otherwise exemplary player.
It is also interesting to note that he captained Rennes for a spell, too. What can you tell us about what he brought to that role?
Bastien: He took over the captaincy from Petter Hansson after the Swede left the club in 2010. At the time, Mangane was the obvious choice, for his personal influence on the squad matched his physical presence on the pitch.
Mangane acted as a true leader, cemented a back-line that was crowned the best-defence in France that year, and he generally was the coach's voice on the pitch. He organised, re-positioned, started the attacks, and directed the defence. In a very young squad (no top-tier team in Europe gave more playing time to U21s than Rennes in 2010-2011) composed mainly of Rennes' Academy graduates, he was the big brother, the boss and the inspiration in Rennes' eventual qualification for the Europa League.
Some reports have said that he is a player who is also very comfortable in the centre of midfield. Is there some genuine versatility there or has that been overstated to some degree?
Bastien: As I wrote earlier, he can play at midfield and spent most of his time as a defensive midfielder before arriving in Rennes, But from what I could gather from his past with Lens, and from what I have seen whenever I saw him play as a midfielder in Rennes, this is certainly not his best position.
Since he was turned into a defender, he became a top Ligue 1 player at his position, attracting attention from clubs all over France and the continent. In my opinion, this is where he is at his very best. Using him as a midfielder when needed is certainly a possibility for his manager, but his regular position has got to remain at the heart of the defence.
Considering he has been linked with clubs like Arsenal in the past, it perhaps comes as a surprise to have found him playing his football in Saudi Arabia. How did he end up there?
Bastien: After the aforementioned 2010-2011 season, he expressed his wish to leave Stade Rennes. He was finally offered a pay rise and the promise of a transfer at the end of the following season. Unfortunately, he suffered an ankle injury in the following September, which kept him in and out of the squad for months, until constant relapses convinced him to undergo surgery and put an end to his season.
As the summer came, and he was still recovering, he was still determined to leave the club, and he took the offer from Al Hilal as it presented itself. He could probably have stayed a bit longer in Rennes and looked for a different, possibly most prestigious destination once his injury was healed.
Instead, he seems he favoured a move that would offer him a great financial deal while completing his recovery, before returning to Europe. A shame for us Rennes supporters, who would have loved to see him at his best once again before leaving, but it also makes complete sense from the player's point of view.
Finally, is he a player you'd expect to thrive in the Premier League?
Bastien: This will sound a bit obvious, but he really depends on how his body copes with top-level football. He has the ability to be a fantastic signing for Sunderland if he shows the sort of level he displayed during his first two seasons in France.
He is as tall as Peter Crouch, as strong as Sol Campbell and as gritty as John Terry, which can prove a rather good combination for a centre back. His main fault, however, is his ability to completely switch off in the middle of a match and forget about the game for a few all-important seconds,
If he can keep his focus permanent and reach levels of fitness and performance similar to what he once used us to, there is no doubt he can become a solid, if not leading Premier League centre-back. And this would delight everyone in Rennes too, because "Maitre Kader" genuinely is a top bloke as well as a great defender!
A huge thanks to Bastien for his brilliant insight as well as his time. For those with some command of the French language (or a solid online translator) and some interest in French football, make sure you are following him on twitter.
Bastien is also rowing the Atlantic for a number of charities later this year. If you'd like to find out more or may be make a donation, then you can do so at http://www.rowtheatlantic2013.co.uk/.