Ki Sung-Yueng might just be Sunderland’s best signing since they returned to the Premier League.
Think about it – Darren Bent scored goals, Simon Mignolet was a goalkeeping diamond polished up by Sunderland’s ’keeper coaches and Steven Fletcher justified the inflated fee – but none of them were able to change the playing philosophy of a club like Ki has.
That we are proposing that statement in the aftermath of Roberto De Fanti’s unlamented departure merely highlights the schizophrenic nature of Sunderland’s season. However misguided handing him the keys to the Stadium of Light might have been – and it led to some real errors of judgement over the summer – the signing of Ki was not one.
In fact, out of the chaos of a summer re-structuring project which veered horrendously off course as the season edged closer, Ki’s capture shines like a beacon.
It took the appointment of Gus Poyet to realise what a gem Sunderland had managed to smuggle out of Swansea over the summer, and adjust the Black Cats’ midfield accordingly.
Ki reflected ahead of a crucial meeting with Southampton this weekend: “Yes, there were times I wondered what I had got myself into, but that was not just me.
“Everyone was the same. There were managers changing and we just could not get a result.
“It was a tough time for everyone, not just me, but when Gus came the way he tried to play helped the boys to improve straight away. I like the way we play a lot.”
Arguably, Sunderland had been yearning for a player like Ki ever since Lorik Cana’s abrupt departure in the Steve Bruce era.
The Black Cats had hit form a few times in the interim but there had been no long-term solution discovered for their biggest problem – a lack of midfield creativity which badly hampered them.
A simple tale of the tape suggests Sunderland have more offensive bite than in previous campaigns.
This year they have already scored nine goals from the engine room, with Adam Johnson and Ki contributing alongside Craig Gardner’s penalty haul. Last year they managed 12 in the entire season, a paltry tally. The previous year it was 14.
More than that, their play has adapted to the point where they now have a distinctive style – and one that suits Ki too.
He said: “It is not just long balls but much more about keeping the ball and that is much better. It suits the way I play my football.
“That is why I feel I can perform better now. I can play to my strengths. Keeping the ball, passing the ball and helping the strikers.
“I have even shown I can score myself, which is something I did not even realise I can do. A lot of that is down to Gus. He looks after the team very well.
“No one maybe expected us to keep the ball as well as we have, but we have done it and now we are doing it every week.
“We can do much better because we have only really been working on his method for two months. As time goes by, we will improve even more because now we know what to do.
“The main thing we have to do now, though, is pick up more points. That is the most important thing for us but if you are playing good football it makes it so much easier. We are trying to do that.” The respect for Poyet is clear. The Black Cats boss has unlocked something in the midfielder which has not been seen since his days at Celtic and there is a clear respect for the manager.
Ki said: “He loves playing football which means tactically he is very organised and smart, especially when we play against the top teams.
“He knows exactly how to defend and attack them.
“That is why we have such a good record against Everton, Man City, Man United and Chelsea. When he was a player, he was at the very top and scored a lot of goals.
“He is very kind and honest. I like him and enjoy working with him a lot. If there is a problem, he will talk to you as a person. He does not cheat or lie. I like that.
“It is hard to compare managers with different styles.
“He talks more than Michael Laudrup, who is calmer and quieter. They do different things but I like Gus.”
For all the plaudits Poyet has collected – and there is understood to be delight in the boardroom at the way the former Chelsea man has gone about his business – Sunderland have not escaped the relegation fight by a long chalk.
For a start, they need to turn solid away performances into points on their own patch, and this weekend’s game against a Southampton side rocked by internal divisions is a huge opportunity for Sunderland. Ki spies a chance to strike a major blow in their battle against the drop.
He added: “It has taken an awfully long time just to get out of last position so to go even further and move out of the bottom three wouldbrilliant.
“If we can win two games we could get as high as 15th which would be massive. When we look at the schedule, we see games we think we can win – Southampton, Stoke and even Newcastle.
“They will not be easy but they are games we have targeted. This weekend against Southampton is really big for us.”