SUNDERLAND’S summer recruitment was as much to do with plugging the leaks, as producing a dramatic improvement in quality.
Circumstances dictated that it had to be that way.
There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, while seven of the eight out-of-contract players left the club, as did four of the five loanees.
It’s why Sunderland are so desperate to oversee a period of relative stability, where no more than half-a-dozen recruits can be brought in in one fell swoop.
But the two players earmarked to inject a touch of class into Sunderland’s ranks, were Jack Rodwell and Ricky Alvarez.
Rodwell was to occupy the crucial box-to-box midfield role in Gus Poyet’s blueprint, while Alvarez, when he eventually settled, would provide the X Factor lacking since Stephane Sessegnon departed.
There have been occasional flashes from the pair, but neither have lived up to those expectations.
However, the two midfielders both played a key role in last week’s comeback at Hull – Alvarez turning the tide in the last half-hour from the substitute’s bench, while Rodwell is perhaps still lacking confidence after looking a transformed man following his equaliser.
Sunderland have to hope that is a sign of things to come because both need to come good over the final 10 games to secure the Black Cats’ Premier League status.
Much rests now on Alvarez’s shoulders, in particular, given the lack of other options out wide.
Emanuele Giaccherini won’t play again this season, Will Buckley has been out for more than a month with a knee problem which refuses to clear up, while Adam Johnson will be sidelined indefinitely during his club suspension.
Regardless of the police investigation, losing Johnson is a bitter blow given he has continued to be Sunderland’s most creative player this season. Alvarez needs to fill that void.
There needs to be more of the flair and quick feet shown at Hull, and during his man of the match display at Fulham last month.
There needs to be less of the soft barges off the ball and constant niggling injuries which have plagued the Argentine international throughout his loan spell from Inter Milan. But Alvarez has the ability.
It was one of the reasons why Sunderland limited themselves to just bringing in Jermain Defoe during the January window.
It was thought that with Alvarez fit again after the knee problem which kept him out for two months before Christmas, there would be fresh creativity available.
Now Sunderland need Alvarez to show it consistently, particularly as his stay on Wearside is likely to be extended with a £7.5m permanent move during the summer, providing of course that the club remain in the top flight.
If the 26-year-old doesn’t come up to scratch, then Duncan Watmore is the only real alternative out wide during the run-in.
Watmore, making his way back to full fitness after a broken leg, has been the stand-out figure for the Under-21s this season and would not be hamstrung by the fear factor which can plague players in the relegation dogfight.
The ex-Altrincham man’s thirst for taking players on could offer a breath of fresh air too, considering some of Sunderland’s stodgy approach play this season.
But given his minimal experience, Watmore is surely a better bet from the bench.
Alvarez is the man Sunderland have to look to, unless of course, Poyet persists with playing four central midfielders across the middle of the park.
Hopefully that was a one-off; an experiment that failed in the first half at Hull and needed an impact from the bench to rescue a point.
Considering Lee Cattermole is now suspended for a game, and both Liam Bridcutt and Jordi Gomez are still to win fans over, less may be more in central midfield too.
It’s where Rodwell needs to prove his pedigree during the run-in.
Speaking to the £10m man at the KC Stadium, he seemed much more relaxed and more self-assured. Perhaps he is finally beginning to settle into proceedings.
Poyet will hope so, particularly as he is one – if not the only – central midfielder on Sunderland’s books capable of bridging the gap regularly with the front-line.
That has continued to be the problem since the arrival of Defoe.
The England international has shown his scoring prowess since his January move, but since that strike at Swansea last month, he has been left to feed on scraps.
With Sunderland realistically needing three more wins to beat the drop, those chances need to come for Defoe.
Those players who arrived on Wearside last summer for big money and big reputations, need to deliver.