TITUS Bramble has a problem. Fortunately, he has timed it well. Before Saturday's trip to Burnley, Bramble had already conceded a penalty and collected a red card on his travels. In Lancashire the centre-back could easily have done both again.
Fortunately for him, referee Colin Webster had got the warm-up match into clearer perspective than the over-officious Christian Bandruski in Mönchengladbach.
So it was only when Bramble pushed his luck by leaping in a second time in the area that Webster pointed to the spot, overlooking a first challenge which not only looked a foul, but a goalscoring opportunity.
The calm reassurance of the first half of last season is gone, replaced by the calamities that were once his unwanted and unwarranted trademark.
Problems are what pre-season are about – identifying and eliminating them. Bramble is at least getting them out of his system.
With two friendlies left, at Hartlepool United and Hibernian, manager Steve Bruce must decide if that is the case, or if Bramble must be the first victim of the deepest defensive resources the Black Cats have had at their disposal this millennium. As Bruce acknowledged afterwards, the match was played at half the pace of a typical Premier League encounter, producing little entertainment for the thousand-plus in the away end. The cricket match behind them was probably more intense. Even at this speed, the Black Cats’ tackling was off the pace. Bramble was not the only culprit. In the first half in particular, Sunderland racked up a large number of fouls clattering through the back of opponents.
Another problem is the service from wide areas. With two hulking centre-forwards signed in Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-Won, putting quality crosses on to their heads is a must. There were pitifully few at Burnley.
Summer addition Sebastian Larsson sat on the bench for the first 68 minutes but did little to reverse the trend in open play or from set-pieces coming on as the game was being suffocated by blanket substitutions – 11 for Burnley seven days before their season starts, five for Sunderland with a fortnight to go.
Jack Colback had an excuse. He is not a left winger, and would probably have been secretly pleased to return to his natural central midfield habitat at half-time.
Ahmed Elmohamady ought to have pushed his claims. The tag of “the Egyptian David Beckham” never looked more ridiculous than when he was consistently struggling to execute the skill that marks out the genuine article.
Half-time substitute Steed Malbranque was his usual scheming self, but no more likely to need chalk cleaning off his boots than he is to give his team-mates a headache. You could see more natural left-wingers at a BNP rally. Although he did not show it on the weekend, we should perhaps assume Larsson is the solution, but he cannot be the answer to two questions.
Bruce would appear to have three options: get Elmohamady’s crossing up to scratch, sign a left-winger or look into having Larsson – who can play on either flank – cloned.
Unless Sir Alex Ferguson reveals how he managed it with Rafael Da Silva, the final option looks a no-goer, and last season suggested Elmohamady was better at getting his head on than consistently delivering high-quality crosses.
So with Charles N’Zogbia and Stewart Downing moving elsewhere in recent weeks, Sunderland fans will hope talk of loaning Manchester City’s Adam Johnson comes to fruition. Apart from only being a temporary signing, the Sunderland-born winger would be perfect. If not, Bruce’s scouting network need to find someone else, and Ellis Short must raid his piggy bank one last time this summer.
There were good signs from Sunderland’s forwards, particularly the second-half pairing of Stéphane Sessègnon and Ji. Both dropped off to good effect. Sessègnon largely left to run at the back four, Ji normally right to either feed or be the crosser.
The Korean did at least force Burnley’s only save, after 81 minutes.
The defence was more of a worry. Like Bramble, Phil Bardsley returned sooner than expected from injury. Last season’s left-back played at right-back and centre-back. Where he will line up at Anfield is a mystery, but he must surely be in the starting XI.
Kieran Richardson looks to have a strong chance of being at left-back, where he has played regularly in pre-season, and from where he can serve up a cross. But with Bardsley and John O’Shea able to do a good job there, he may be better utilised in Sunderland’s problem position.
Michael Turner’s pre-season continues to be disrupted by injury, but Wes Brown has two hours’ playing time under his belt after two seasons as a stranger to first-team football.
It is around four times more than O’Shea, whose return from a hamstring strain is not expected until Saturday.
Having become used to feeding off scraps at Manchester United, and lacking his bulk, the pair perhaps need less football to find their rhythm than Bramble, who does not have it yet. When Andre Amougou played an agricultural ball forward Jay Rodriguez took it brilliantly but before he could shoot, Bramble flew across his path. Lucky to escape that, he did not learn his lesson.
Later, an overhit pass put Rodriguez in an innocuous position on the byline, but Bramble could not stop himself diving in. It was a mistake, but better to make them in the warmth of pre-season than the heat of proper battle.