Whether Gustavo Poyet’s Sunderland rebuilding job will be finished on time is another question, but there are signs of its first phase taking shape.
Poyet has big plans for his team, talking after Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Aston Villa of eventually ratcheting up the tempo of their play.
However, he moved into the Stadium of Light with a much higher priority.
Poyet may be a passionate advocate of the beautiful game but he realises the need for solid foundations.
A first away clean sheet of the season on a ground where Paolo Di Canio’s team shipped six games in April was a significant breakthrough.
What pleased Poyet the most was that, despite what the other half of the scoreline said, no attacking intent was sacrificed to achieve it.
It was a very contradictory day. Sunderland wasted the chance for a first away win this season, but the mood music from the away dressing room was overwhelming positive.
Things are going in the right direction, but only slowly.
Even without their optimistic penalty appeals when Wes Brown hit the ball against Ciaran Clark’s hand from close range, Sunderland ought to have scored three goals.
Craig Gardner found the net from what he surely knew was an offside position when he could have left it for Steven Fletcher coming from deep.
Fabio Borini’s misjudgment could be measured in millimeters when he struck the bar from distance but Emanuele Giaccherini spooned a six-yard box sitter over.
With Christian Benteke less off the boil, more in the deep freeze, the Wearsiders had the better chances yet mustered just one shot on target.
Their feebleness in front of goal remains a huge concern. Steven Fletcher looks out of sorts with only two Sunderland goals all season but it is still as many as all the alternatives – Borini, Jozy Altidore, Ji Dong-won and Connor Wickham – combined. Every Sunderland league goalscorer this season was in the starting 11.
Extra firepower is desperately needed in January, though perhaps more in midfield.
Yet Fletcher got more support than in most if not all games this season.
With Adam Johnson dropped and Lee Cattermole unused from the bench, Poyet’s formation was less the 4-1-4-1 of recent weeks, more 4-1-2-3. Had wide forwards Borini and Giaccherini put their chances away, the vindication of an adventurous approach would have been greater.
In front of Prince William Sunderland’s was hardly a royal command performance, but there was at least a bit of variety.
They were sloppier on the ball than in recent games but it was strangely reassuring to see Brown hoof it away a couple of times.
Nine tenths of Poyet’s Law is about possession, but such philosophies risks becoming an obsession.
In the early stages Andreas Weimann caught Ki Sung-Yeung dwelling in possession and nearly latched onto Brown’s sloppy pass across the back four.
Vito Mannone hit a simple pass to Giaccherini out and when Gardner had men left and right on the counter-attack he opted for the simple ball and fluffed it. Sunderland’s set pieces were generally dreadful, but 44 minutes of turning their noses up at crossing from a corner finally paid off when Ki’s beautiful curved ball was headed to Giaccherini by Phil Bardsley.
His miss had to be seen to be believed.
Judging by Poyet’s reaction even that was no guarantee.
When an earlier Ki cross also exposed Villa’s offside trap Fletcher and Sebastian Larsson somehow both failed to make contact.
Sunderland tightened up in the second half and ought to have got their reward, but Borini headed Giaccherini’s right-wing cross on to the bar.