Nine, nine, four, five, five, three, five.
No, it’s not Sunderland’s man-by-man ratings for the Norwich game. Nor is it the amount of matches the Black Cats will have to play next season if they fail to turn their Premier League fortunes around and wind up slipping into the second tier.
In fact it is the number of changes Gus Poyet has made to his starting XI in each of his last seven games across the Premier League, Capital One Cup and FA Cup. It’s a pretty remarkable statistic, really: in the last four weeks, the Sunderland boss has – on average – changed half of his team for every game.
Back in December, Poyet was asked about his experiences under Claudio Ranieri – the man infamously dubbed the ‘Tinkerman’ for his tendency to shuffle his pack at the slightest excuse.
His response was instructive: “I used to hate it as a player when managers changed it. I absolutely hated the rotation system. I hated it. I didn’t like to feel like I was at my best in one game then in the next I was sitting on the bench for no reason. Somebody thought I needed a rest when I didn’t.”
Nothing illustrates Poyet’s increasing frustration with his Sunderland squad better than his sudden reversion to a tactic that just does not come naturally to him. Injuries and suspensions have forced the manager’s hand but there are a fair few judgement calls in there too: the sudden promotion of Emanuele Giaccherini, for example. Or Seb Larsson’s return to the team for the League Cup final.
The problem is, little Poyet is doing at the moment is coming off. Of those seven games, Sunderland have won one – and they haven’t plundered three points since February 1. Of the next five games, only West Ham on Monday looks capable of yielding a maximum return.
It feels, to be frank, as if a measure of panic is creeping into Poyet’s decision-making. Connor Wickham’s return on Monday – the latest roll of the dice from the Uruguayan – felt like a bit of a desperate move, to be perfectly honest.
Wickham is 20 now, but feels like a veteran of false dawns. Back in the summer, under Paolo Di Canio, there seemed to be an opportunity for a player who embraced the idea of a fresh start. But then the Italian signed the inferior Jozy Altidore and it felt like he was back to the start again.
A problem has developed in the weeks since Wembley and that is that Poyet’s confidence in his players to deliver his footballing vision has been knocked. The number of changes to the starting XI are a case of seeing too many of his players as either too inconsistent or too limited to do what he wants them to do.
That is what his January dealings were all about. Poyet brought in Liam Bridcutt not because he particularly needed a midfielder to play in that part of the park but rather because he needed someone who was able to deliver consistently. The problem is, Sunderland needed more.
Poyet’s furious attempts to change things are undermining his greatest strength. The Black Cats have been overly frenetic in the Ellis Short era, paying the price for the owner’s lack of patience and tolerance. They’ve had too many fresh starts; too many new directions.
Mistakes have been made and then attempts to rectify them have followed soon after. On too many occasions those attempts to correct slip-ups have had the reverse effect of just piling more problems on problems.
It is impossible to escape the feeling that the Short era has been too furious – too much heat and not enough light. Poyet was the antidote to that, instilling a definitive philosophy in his team and finally giving the club a direction and identity to rally behind.
In recent weeks, it is difficult to discern where Poyet is going. After the Liverpool game he admitted that he needed his team to take a few more risks yet this Sunderland team has given the impression that it is an accident waiting to happen.
Did he ever really think they could protect a lead against a team as rampant as Brendan Rodgers’ Reds? And why was Altidore back in the team after providing little evidence that he could turn things around.
Eventually Poyet’s long-term project will transform Sunderland into a more stable club who don’t perform this annual survival dance.
He is good: imaginative and competent. But to get over the line this season he needs to ditch the dithering and get back to what helped him turn things round in the first place.