AT THE start of the season, a straw poll of Sunderland fans would have produced a relatively similar first-choice starting XI.
Even now, after a run of six successive league defeats has exhausted the patience of supporters, there would be a general theme to the strongest available side.
But as Gus Poyet alluded to yesterday, Sunderland’s best players on paper have not correlated with any cohesion on the field.
Poyet is right. Sunderland need a side that clicks, rather than hoping desperately for a fusion of 11 men to strike a note in perfect harmony.
Last week’s Swansea debacle almost seems to have proved an immediate watershed for the Sunderland head coach; a chance to rip up his initial impressions and start with a blank piece of paper.
From those noble early objectives of keeping a settled team – particularly at the back – Poyet’s faith was betrayed at the Liberty Stadium and there will surely be changes for a second successive derby with huge repercussions for Sunderland.
Few in the Sunderland side could be considered to be safe – Lee Cattermole, Keiren Westwood and Steven Fletcher are perhaps the only ones.
Other than that, Poyet has licence to make sweeping reforms of the XI who take to the field against the Magpies on Sunday.
Ki Sung-Yeung is one who will almost definitely be included after impressing Poyet on the training field.
The on-loan South Korean was missed against his parent club last weekend, with Sunderland lacking a composed central midfielder capable of putting his foot on the ball – albeit opportunities to do that are all too scarce in the derby cauldron.
But who else is in contention?
The inclusion of Wes Brown would be a huge call from Poyet after the former England international has spent almost two years on the sidelines.
A derby is no environment to be rolling the dice.
But would Brown be such a gamble?
The 34-year-old looked in fine fettle in Hong Kong during pre-season and providing he is fit – or as fit as he can be – then he boasts bundles of experience in high-stakes encounters.
Certainly, none of Sunderland’s centre-halves have covered themselves in glory this season, to put it mildly.
And with Sunderland running out of time to put that first Premier League win on the board, then Poyet has to take a few risks to get the Black Cats off the mark before any hopes of a miraculous recovery become impossible.
Poyet’s claim that he was ready to axe players regardless of reputation, immediately created the impression that winger Adam Johnson’s position was under threat.
And the likes of Jack Colback, Fabio Borini and Jozy Altidore will surely sense that there is an opportunity to force their way in the side for Sunday.
While Poyet has plenty to ponder, opposite number Alan Pardew’s headache revolves around his scant central defensive options.
Newcastle’s point against Liverpool last weekend came at a cost after the dismissal and subsequent suspension of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
With Fabricio Coloccini – who always seems to shine in the derby – ruled out through injury, Pardew is sweating on the fitness of Steven Taylor.
The Sunderland hate figure only resumed training from a hamstring injury earlier this week though and there remain doubts over whether the 27-year-old will feature.
If not, Pardew will have to turn to rookie Magpie Paul Dummett alongside Mike Williamson.
That will surely be an area which Poyet looks to target and there is a case to partner Altidore alongside Fletcher, even if Sunderland’s best Premier League performances this season – both under Kevin Ball – came with a five-man midfield.
Likewise, Pardew will look to exploit the deficiencies in Sunderland’s defence after director of football Joe Kinnear was at the Liberty last weekend.
Loic Remy and Hatem Ben Arfa will bid to get in behind the Black Cats’ back-line, while set pieces offer obvious promise – even if Newcastle haven’t scored from a Premier League corner in two years.
Until Sunderland’s defence shows some solidity, then Poyet’s hopes of a revival are redundant.
Given their paper-thin confidence and the fury it would produce on the terraces, Sunderland cannot afford to fall behind.
Poyet’s men need to get their noses in front and stay there.
There can be no more collapses, no more softly conceded goals and no more missed opportunities.
Sunderland are entering the last chance saloon in their quest for points. There is no better time to stop the rot.