Sunderland have looked a very different team in their last two games.
In consecutive wins – for the first time this season – against Southampton and Manchester City came the initial signs that the Black Cats are starting to play the way Gustavo Poyet wants them to.
The transition, says Jack Colback, has been seamless.
The basic idea is to keep the ball – to wear down the opposition and keep it away from their forwards. It is not rocket science, but it is not easy either. It requires patience, discipline and technical ability.
There have been common themes in the two games. Many have rightly latched on to the fact they are the only two matches centre-back Wes Brown has started this season as the reason for their greater defensive solidity (a clean sheet against City, only a late consolation goal sloppily conceded from a set piece versus the Saints).
They were also the first games Vito Mannone has started for Poyet, and it would be a surprise if the Italian goalkeeper did not retain his place for today’s trip to Stoke City.
But there has been another, less heralded, factor too.
The League Cup visit of Southampton also marked Ki Sung-Yeung’s first start under the Uruguayan coach.
Composed and elegant on the ball, Ki looks a prototype Poyet player, well suited to keeping the passing carousel moving. The modern fashion is for holding midfielders to be more Xabi Alonso than Vinnie Jones. The idea is to pass you to death, not kick you into oblivion.
“He’s quiet,” Jack Colback says of the South Korean, who played for 66 minutes in Tuesday’s 2-1 friendly defeat to Russia in Dubai. “He just comes in and trains well. He’s a good player, a very good player. A few of us were surprised that Swansea had let him go. He’s very composed on the ball and for the way the gaffer wants to play he’s well suited.”
Circumstances had counted against Ki. He has arguably been the best of Roberto Di Fanti’s 14 summer signings, but was unavailable for Poyet’s first game in charge because it was at Swansea City, the club he is on loan from. His selection for the next game, against Newcastle United, was deliberately parochial, leaving Ki to settle for a 20-minute cameo. Having recorded the club’s first Premier League win of the season, Poyet was all-but obliged to continue in the same vein at Hull City.
Defeat there, and a red card for Lee Cattermole, allowed a rethink. The results have been impressive. Fellow midfielder Jack Colback is not daft enough to side with one over the other. But while he accepts Ki and Cattermole have different qualities, he says he does not have to adjust his game from one to the other.
“No, I don’t really think so,” he says when asked. “Everyone knows their role, their position and what they need to do. We know what’s asked of us individually. Whoever plays you’ve got them same roles and it’s just building up a relationship.
“If Ki plays there you’ve got to know what he might do, he might do something different to what Catts might. It’s just getting those relationships.
“They’re both very good players who bring different things to the game. There are things I can’t do that other people can.
“They’re both good on the ball but Catts is a bit more fierce in his closing down and things like that. Ki is a bit more composed. They both play the role well.”
At Villa Park next week, with the Teessider’s suspension served, Poyet will have a choice between Cattermole’s aggression and Ki’s artistry. There is, Colback points out, a third option.
“Ki or Catts could move up into a bit more advanced role depending what the manager wants and what’s needed,” he argues.
The most important thing, says Colback, is that whoever does what job will understand just what is expected of them. “Everyone should know exactly what their role is in the team,” he adds. “When everyone knows that I’m sure we’re going to win a lot more games.
“The manager and his staff have come in from day one and tried to get their ideas across. Everyone comes in with different ideas and he’s come in with his. Everyone’s bought into it. It’s important the players go with what he’s trying to do and we’re really enjoying trying to do it. The more we do that the better the chances of us winning games and getting out of the situation we’re in.
“I know if I play in the advanced role I know if it’s a different job to if I’m picked in the deeper role where you have to do a bit more defensive work protecting the two centre-halves. In the advanced role you get forward more.
“Everyone should know what’s required of them when they play and it’s about doing it on the day.”