SUNDERLAND’S medical team received a pleasant outcome when Ricky Alvarez was put through his initial fitness assessments last week.
The results showed Alvarez was among the fittest players in Sunderland’s squad.
There will be no repeat of last season’s farce waiting for his compatriot Nacho Scocco to bust a blood vessel.
The Argentine international’s arrival from Inter Milan in suitable condition was surely a contributory factor in Gus Poyet’s decision to throw Alvarez straight into the cauldron of the Premier League on Saturday.
It was some baptism of fire. By some distance, Spurs were the best team Sunderland have faced this season.
Mauricio Pochettino’s formula of possession, pace and movement will see Spurs mount a serious challenge for the top four, providing they can find that extra splash of ruthlessness at both ends of the pitch.
Seeing that standard of opposition will have done Alvarez good. So, too, will a rib-tickling challenge from Etienne Capoue, plus referee Craig Pawson waving play on when he went to ground too easily.
But did Poyet’s gamble of launching Alvarez into the deep end pay off? Not really.
Perhaps that’s harsh, given the size of the task Alvarez faced to make an impact.
He certainly produced a couple of eye-catching runs and through-balls which demonstrated his prowess.
There was enough to suggest that, in the goodness of time, the 26-year-old will prove to be an asset. His pedigree alone for Argentina backs that up.
But physically, Alvarez was outmuscled and he neglected his defensive duties.
In the first half in particular, ex-Sunderland loanee Danny Rose was Tottenham’s constant out-ball as he rampaged down the left flank and overwhelmed full-back Santiago Vergini.
None of this should be necessarily concerning though.
How many English football rookies truly arrive on these shores and hit the ground running?
Only the truly exceptional players.
The more interesting aspect was that Poyet is right, Alvarez is no like-for-like replacement for Fabio Borini.
He is far more midfielder than forward.
Looking ahead, that’s the big headache for Poyet. How do you solve a problem like Borini?
There is no natural heir to the Italian in Sunderland’s ranks.
Emanuele Giaccherini – hugely unfortunate not to get a place in the starting XI – is a versatile, clever midfielder, while Will Buckley is an old-fashioned winger.
Neither those two, nor Alvarez, is a forward who can operate from the flanks, but will look to get into the penalty area at every opportunity.
A return to the experiment of Connor Wickham out wide should not be a feasible option either.
Despite being starved of service on Saturday, Wickham demonstrated, with his power and underestimated pace, that he is far more threatening as a central striker.
It may have been brutal on Steven Fletcher to not even get a place on the bench, but Wickham had to operate down the middle sooner rather than later.
But without Borini, Sunderland’s attacking shape will need tinkering, either with the wide left player tucking inside far more frequently or a creative midfielder, Giaccherini or Jordi Gomez, operating centrally – as worked successfully in the dying stages against Spurs.
It may take several more games before Poyet lands upon a combination that clicks, but, in the unforgiving arena of the Premier League, winless Sunderland cannot afford to come away empty-handed while they are experimenting.
However, that “Borini position” was far from the biggest problem on show against Spurs. Neither Alvarez nor the dangerous Adam Johnson – who began on the left –saw enough of the ball to lay that at their doors.
Pochettino’s Southampton demonstrated in January’s 2-2 draw at the Stadium of Light that they could overwhelm Sunderland in midfield (ironically, that was another occasion when the visitors failed to make their superiority count).
That was the pattern again on Saturday, but it was even more one-sided.
Sunderland’s defensive line operating too deep didn’t help, but there were acres of space for Pochettino’s midfield, and Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela ran riot as a result.
Both Seb Larsson and Jack Rodwell – the two box-to-box players in Poyet’s ranks – were unsure whether to sit back or leave that gap in behind Wickham.
They were caught in two minds and were left aimlessly chasing shadows; unable to provide Sunderland with any midfield platform whatsoever.
Lee Cattermole faced the impossible task of trying to keep Spurs’ stronger and quicker dangermen under wraps, and simply had too much ground to cover to control proceedings as he can.
The pattern didn’t change until the dying stages when both Giaccherini and Gomez were introduced from the bench.
That, in itself, is a positive.
Poyet’s substitutions are now no longer purely governed by availability.
He didn’t have to throw on Jozy Altidore through sheer hope, when another forward was not needed.
Sunderland’s squad may still be short numerically by a body or two, but Poyet is no longer relying on the same 13 or 14 outfield players, as was pretty much the case last season.
Substitutions can now be decided upon through their suitability and that ultimately earned Sunderland a draw, albeit in part thanks to the dozing of Spurs replacement Harry Kane.
Poyet’s men could – and perhaps should – have even won it after Buckley failed to grasp the written invitation from Patrick van Aanholt’s cross and harmlessly spooned his effort over the top.
Did Sunderland deserve a point?
No, but as players, manager and supporters all pointed out afterwards, the Black Cats invariably succumbed in that kind of scenario last time around.
Instead of wilting, Sunderland fought back.
They weren’t thrown by being caught cold during an opening five minutes which almost resembled the end-to-end nature of five-a-side, and immediately responded through Johnson’s superb individual skill.
And despite riding their luck, seeing the paint chipped on the woodwork twice by Spurs and looking heavy-legged from constantly chasing after the visitors, there was no surrender from Poyet’s side.
That’s an invaluable trait to have. It’s one which hasn’t been present regularly in Sunderland’s ranks for a while.
Yes, Poyet’s side remain winless and could desperately do with breaking their duck at Burnley this coming weekend.
But without playing brilliantly – or at least not for sustained periods – Sunderland are putting points on the board.
That bodes well for when Poyet does eventually land upon a first-choice combination which clicks.
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Vergini, O’Shea, Brown, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Larsson (Giaccherini 65), Rodwell (Gomez 79), Alvarez (Buckley 65), Johnson, Wickham. Subs not used: Pantilimon, Jones, Bridcutt, Altidore. Booked: van Aanholt (86), Vergini (88), Wickham (90), Gomez (90), Brown (90)
SPURS: Lloris, Dier, Chiriches, Kaboul, Rose, Capoue, Dembele, Chadli (Stambouli 70), Lamela, Eriksen (Lennon 86), Adebayor (Kane 79). Subs not used: Vorm, Naughton, Townsend, Fazio. Booked: Dier (61)
Attendance: 40,799. Referee: Craig Pawson
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