Simon Grayson takes his Sunderland side to Hull City tomorrow in desperate need of a positive result to halt a four game losing streak.
The midweek defeat to Nottingham Forest offered an improvement in terms of both the application and quality of Sunderland’s performance, though the cutting edge was still missing and the result devastating for the support.
Much of his decision-making will defend on the fitness of Aiden McGeady, Lewis Grabban and Lamine Kone but what are the key questions for Grayson and his squad ahead of the weekend’s game?
Was the balance of the side better?
Grayson swapped his five-at-the-back formation for a 4-2-3-1 of sorts against Nottingham Forest, with Jonny Williams playing off the main striker and George Honeyman and Callum McManaman starting as orthodox wingers.
While the onus will be on Hull to set the attacking tempo on their own turf tomorrow, it would be a surprise if Grayson was to tinker too much with the basic shape of the side.
The balance of the team looked far better, with Sunderland able to play with greater and more natural width. In defence, they arguably looked stronger for the more orthodox approach. A clean sheet would have been well deserved if not for Tyias Browning’s uncharacteristic error.
Of course, much of Sunderland’s improvement came from mentality, not their formation.
The pressing, the desire to keep the ball on the floor when passing, should be standard whatever the shape but nevertheless they looked a far more cohesive, if still limited, unit.
Has he finally found his desired full-back combination?
The selection of George Honeyman and Adam Matthews in the last two games perhaps suggests Grayson has cooled on playing Billy Jones as first-choice right-back.
A surprise selection to say the least, Matthews was a very solid performer on Tuesday and, while his attacking play need works defensively, he was Sunderland’s strongest performer in that position this season. He is surely worth persevering with. On the other flank, Bryan Oviedo looked a strong option at this level, as many Black Cats fans hoped he would.
An individual error forcing a defeat was frustrating, mainly because Sunderland looked far more resolute and key to that was their greater control of the wide areas.
Has Grayson found his best options in the full-back positions?
Does the midfield need freshening up?
Grayson spoke ahead of the Forest game about the need to build sustained periods of pressure in games to solve the team’s goalscoring woes.
While they improved from the dismal Blades showing last weekend, they weren’t able to do that and it is therefore tempting to wonder if fresh legs could make a difference.
Williams will only be getting stronger and should keep his place, but could rotating Didier Ndong and Lee Cattermole help the side?
That, of course, depends on whether Grayson can have faith in Jack Rodwell or Darron Gibson to play at their peak performance. The signs so far this season in that regard have been mixed at best.
Can he get more from his substitutions?
Grayson has come under fire for his substitutions and it is true that Sunderland got worse in an attacking sense as the game developed, rather than stronger.
Nevertheless, Grayson was hamstrung by a bench that resembled the early stages of the calendar year in its lack of variety and game-changing options.
Grayson will be hoping some of his attacking talent can return from injury to allow him to reserve some firepower for later in the game.
The Black Cats are too easy to defend against at the moment and the inability to add real verve in the closing stages is compounding that.