FITNESS COACH Antonio Pintus was one of the unheralded heroes behind Sunderland’s escape from the drop last season.
When Gus Poyet was picking from 15 or 16 realistic outfield options during the second half of the campaign, the Black Cats could ill-afford to suffer any long-term casualties.
They didn’t, and Poyet lays plenty of credit for that at the door of ex-Chelsea, West Ham and Juventus coach Pintus.
With Sunderland not much more numerically blessed this time around, Poyet needed Pintus to work his magic again, at least until the January window.
That fair wind has ended though. Injuries are taking a toll.
When there were just two viable options against Arsenal to alter a side thumped 8-0, it’s far from healthy.
But some absentees are more costly than others.
Among those currently submitting sick-notes to get out of PE, Billy Jones has been the one who has really hampered Sunderland’s progress after bringing about a welcome improvement for the Black Cats in his two games in the Premier League starting XI.
Jones added that facet of getting in behind the opposition defence and in tandem with Patrick van Aanholt on the other flank, it gave Sunderland some much-needed threat out wide and allowed the two inside forwards to get closer to Steven Fletcher.
Without Jones in the last two games, Sunderland have gone back to being stodgy and predictable – no explosiveness, no pace and no tempo in the transition between defence and attack.
Van Aanholt tried to do that against Arsenal, but he was cutting a lone furrow.
Injuries were always the anchor to Jones’ progress at former employers West Brom.
Baggies observers invariably responded to enquiries about Jones after his summer switch by declaring “good player ... made of glass”.
It will take until the conclusion of the next international break before Poyet will be able to contemplate restoring Jones to the side after his second hamstring problem of the campaign.
Sunderland cannot wait that long though to restore that extra attacking dimension to the side.
While Santiago Vergini has generally been solid at right-back - other than when the jet lag haze has led to confusion over which goal to aim at – the Argentine international is arguably more of an offensive threat from centre-half.
After Wes Brown’s howler against Arsenal, there is clearly scope to shift Vergini back alongside John O’Shea and hand Anthony Reveillere his Premier League debut at Selhurst Park on Monday.
That could prove to be one of the biggest gambles of Poyet’s Sunderland reign though.
Reveillere hasn’t kicked a ball competitively since May.
For all the ex-France international boasts a wealth of experience, for all he has kept himself in shape since leaving Napoli, this is a guy who has been limited to the treadmill for five months.
Neither has he experienced the frantic kick and rush of the Premier League before. A white-hot Selhurst Park under the floodlights will be some eye opener.
It’s not as if youthful exuberance will carry him through either. Monday’s game comes seven days before his 35th birthday.
But let’s not forget that regardless of the subsequent performances from another ex-Napoli full-back Andrea Dossena last season, the veteran Italian still enjoyed a productive Sunderland debut in the Wear-Tyne derby.
If Reveillere can do that for a couple of games before Jones returns, then his signing will have been a worthwhile stop-gap measure.
In an ideal world, Poyet would have given Reveillere a couple of behind-closed-doors games or substitute appearances to wet his whistle.
But this is not an ideal situation.
Sunderland are low on confidence, and low on attacking threat.
At the moment it’s too easy for opposition sides to get tight to the front three and completely nullify Sunderland’s forward momentum.
It’s been a problem for a couple of seasons. Midfielders don’t get the other side of the striker by bursting through the middle; full-backs only sporadically overlap the wideman.
Van Aanholt has tried to alter that pattern and the Dutchman has been the pick of the bunch so far among Sunderland’s summer signings.
While the former Chelsea man’s defensive naivety can still be evident, he is ever-willing to get forwards – a facet Poyet’s side could still make more of.
But van Aanholt would benefit from a natural full-back and winger putting a side under pressure on the opposite side of the pitch.
It’s far from ideal, but Poyet may have to gamble that the short-term signing of Reveillere can address that short-term deficiency.