‘The season starts now’ was the thrust of Dick Advocaat’s message to his players ahead of hostilities returning after the tiresome international break.
If this had indeed been the opening skirmish of season 2015-16, then we would all be bursting with optimism after a high-tempo display of energy, intent and commitment infuriatingly concluded in a sucker-punch defeat to a distinctly average Spurs side.
There was more than enough to indicate on yesterday’s performance that Sunderland will grow stronger as the campaign wears on once the rusty players regain their fitness
But it wasn’t.
For all it felt like Sunderland had turned a corner with their performance – if not the result – against Spurs yesterday, the Black Cats remain winless and remain at the foot of the Premier League table.
After a distinctly modest two points from the opening five games, Sunderland desperately need to savour that winning feeling for the first time in the Premier League this season sooner rather than later.
There was more than enough to indicate on yesterday’s performance that Sunderland will grow stronger as the campaign wears on once the rusty players regain their fitness.
Just look at how a few games have changed Younes Kaboul, for one.
But until Sunderland break their duck in the win column, Advocaat will remain wary about the possibility of being cast adrift over the next couple of months, while the sharpness and cohesion develops.
It’s going to take several weeks before Fabio Borini, Ola Toivonen, Yann M’Vila (boy, is he going to be some player when he’s fully fit), Jordi Gomez and even Jeremain Lens are at peak condition too.
It’s a catch 22 for Advocaat though. Even if these players are not 100 per cent, they need to feature if they are to fulfil their potential in a red and white shirt.
That’s the price paid for buying several players at the end of the transfer window, who have been ostracised at their former clubs.
When Borini – who was bright considering he had been forced to train away from the first-team squad at Liverpool – came off with 20 minutes to go, he could barely walk to the dug-out.
The Italian’s “second debut” in a Sunderland shirt had taken that much out of him.
It was that lack of game-time for those key players which ultimately cost Sunderland the game, albeit it was ironically substitutes Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell who were guilty of allowing Ryan Mason to wander untracked into the area for the winner.
From the hour mark, Sunderland’s energy levels dipped markedly from the first half and Spurs were finally began to muster some sort of momentum, with Mason getting far too much space in the middle of the park after M’Vila had held the monopoly over that area of the pitch.
It’s where Sunderland desperately needed something to hang onto and why that Jermain Defoe miss, when sent through one-on-one by Lens’ magnificent through-ball, proved to be so costly.
Hearteningly though, even after Mason had broken the deadlock with a deflating delicate chip over Costel Pantilimon, Sunderland still went within a whisker of an equaliser after Jack Rodwell saw his shot crash back off the bar.
And that’s the big difference between Advocaat’s side and the one of his predecessor. There do look to be goals in Sunderland’s ranks these days.
By taking the decision to make the protective midfield role in front of the back four redundant, Advocaat is effectively playing with four forwards.
There will be games when that system proves to be too gung-ho – the trip to Manchester United in 12 days time probably being one of them – yet it’s far better than the stodgy predictability under Gus Poyet when opposition defences coped so comfortably that they were reaching for the cigars.
It allows Defoe to play down the middle too.
Whereas Borini is happy with the work-rate demands of playing on the left, even if ideally he wants to operate centrally, Defoe clearly isn’t content in that environment.
The 32-year-old is and has always been an orthodox striker.
After seeing lone striker Defoe outmuscled by Robert Huth in the opening day defeat at Leicester, Advocaat was adamant that the England international couldn’t play as a lone frontman.
Yet with Toivonen just in behind, and Borini and Lens out wide, Defoe isn’t a soloist now. There are sufficient bodies around him to remove any concerns about his physical stature. All are intelligent enough players to interchange fluidly too.
Defoe’s hold-up play was actually very decent, plus he makes those runs down the sides of defenders which are so awkward to counter – particularly if there is quality delivery coming from Lens and M’Vila.
He certainly got better service than opposite number Harry Kane, who was dealt with excellently by Kaboul and John O’Shea, with full-backs Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt also looking more content.
With the transfer window now shut, Advocaat has been given the building blocks to construct a more entertaining, competitive and healthier-placed side than the one which has laboured for the previous three seasons.
It’s how fast Sunderland can lay their foundations for moving up the table which will decide their fate though.