IN ONE of several tense, tetchy press conferences towards the end of his reign, Gus Poyet was particularly short after the dug-out fireworks at Hull.
Poyet was evasive over the nature of his confrontation with Steve Bruce, but even more so when asked if his touchline antics were borne of frustration from Adam Johnson’s arrest 12 hours or so earlier.
Like any other winger, Johnson can blow hot and cold, yet he’s invariably Sunderland’s most threatening player, either through goals or assists - particularly when it comes to facing Newcastle
However much Poyet denied it, sub-consciously the timing of the Johnson investigation will surely have prompted the Uruguayan’s tantrum with Bruce.
But now Johnson is back. The question is when or if Dick Advocaat uses him.
During Johnson’s two-game absence, Sunderland have been incapable of overcoming his absence.
Like any other winger, Johnson can blow hot and cold, yet he’s invariably Sunderland’s most threatening player, either through goals or assists – particularly when it comes to facing Newcastle.
Johnson gives the team a far better shape too. Unlike Connor Wickham or Ricky Alvarez, he is a natural winger, who does a deceptive amount of work in tracking back.
From a defensive viewpoint, that’s invaluable.
Just look at how Patrick van Aanholt was yet again exposed against Aston Villa when Steven Fletcher – who admittedly was one of the few to show some effort – was deployed as a makeshift left winger.
Similarly, Alvarez tries to offer some protection, but he can’t really do it.
For the first few months of 2015 too, Johnson was one of the few Sunderland players to demonstrate some form. There haven’t been many who can make that claim during the conveyor belt of formations and team selections.
Now Johnson has returned to training, does Dick Advocaat throw him straight back into the fold at Upton Park on Saturday?
Physically, Johnson won’t have suffered too much during his two-week suspension and he has been training at home.
The question mark over the 27-year-old is how he is mentally after the trauma of being arrested etc.
Sunderland cannot afford to take a chance on someone who is not ready to play. Advocaat has nine games and the first two, in particular, are crucial.
So what does the Dutchman do if he opts against using Johnson?
Poyet’s solutions hardly convinced.
The four central midfielders experiment at Hull was bizarre and predictably led to Sunderland producing 45 minutes that was not much better than the first half against Villa.
Neither has Alvarez grasped the responsibility on his shoulders. The Argentine continues to be plagued by a niggling knee problem and was far too predictable against Villa.
Players who are one in five performers are no good to Sunderland at present. Alvarez may have to be cast into the role of super-sub.
But with Emanuele Giaccherini out for the season and Will Buckley still sidelined with a knee injury – although he is expected to play some part in the run-in – there aren’t a lot of other options.
Advocaat may have to take a chance.
Van Aanholt’s defensive capabilities have been badly exposed recently, yet the Dutchman remains a live-wire going forward and crucially has some pace – not an asset which is abundant elsewhere in this Sunderland side.
Is it worth using van Aanholt as a makeshift left winger and deploying Anthony Reveillere behind him as cover?
Or does Advocaat get even more radical and throw Duncan Watmore into the fray?
Watmore hasn’t been sullied by Sunderland’s recent problems and will bring a freshness and fearlessness to proceedings. What’s more, he has the direct, single-minded pace that the Black Cats have been lacking.
The 21-year-old has been training with the rest of the first-team squad since Advocaat’s arrival, and the presence of development coach Paul Bracewell in the Dutchman’s backroom team has to be a positive for the hopes of Sunderland’s rookies.
Of course, Advocaat might opt against naming conventional widemen.
His favoured formation has traditionally been 4-3-3 and he might simply opt to evolve Poyet’s system by continuing with Wickham in a wide role, for example.
But what has been patently obvious over recent games is the need for greater width and some actual crosses for the strikers to feed upon. Surprise, surprise that led to the equaliser at Hull.
Steven Fletcher, Danny Graham and particularly Jermain Defoe thrive on delivery from out wide.
If Sunderland persist with knocking long balls up to the 5ft 7in Defoe and hoping through sheer desperation that he can conjure a rabbit, then the Black Cats are doomed.
If Johnson remains absent, Sunderland have to ensure the arch-poacher is given sufficient prey.