WHEN Sunderland paid Juventus £6.8million for the signature of Emanuele Giaccherini this summer, he did not just become the most expensive signing of the close season,
He also became a statement of intent.
For the Black Cats to sign a current Italian international, especially one from the Serie A champions, whose loss was lamented by Juve boss Antonio Conte, was a great sign – an encouragement for Sunderland fans to sleep easier in their beds.
Paolo Di Canio virtually salivated in the days afterwards, relishing the technique and talent of the tiny attacker and admitted that he had never thought he would be able to get in a player of his quality this summer, revealing he had skewed his original transfer plans for the opportunity of signing the 28-year-old.
And yet up until Tuesday night, Giaccherini had arguably been the disappointment of the season – plenty of lovely touches and deft passes on the left wing, great at keeping the ball, but not a player to significantly influence the outcome of Sunderland games it seemed.
No-one was happy.
Fans were not blown away, the player himself looked ill-at-ease and Di Canio’s frustration was such that he substituted his countryman at half-time in his final game against West Brom last weekend.
On Tuesday, though, we saw a different Giaccherini, a Giaccherini who lived up to his pre-season billing with some thrilling passing, ambitious attacking and excellent assist play in a more central role behind lone striker Jozy Altidore.
And Sunderland fans must now hope that that is a sign of things to come rather than a flash in the pan.
The vast improvement on previous displays so far could be down to a number of factors.
Putting aside the argument that players tend to play better when a manager is sacked, it could well be that Giaccherini prospered from not being micro-managed by Di Canio. It may simply be that only now has he settled.
But the most obvious and likely reason for his improvement is the fact that he was shifted infield where he saw a lot more of the ball than he did in the more peripheral wing role.
This new position is where he was primarily played and enjoyed most success in his time at title-winning Juventus.
And with Stephane Sessegnon now gone and Steven Fletcher sidelined, the opportunity has opened up for Giaccherini to play that role more in the future.
Di Canio could have played Giaccherini in the “hole” – he would have known how well the diminutive Italian had done there for Juventus – but, initially, the former head coach had Sessegnon occupying that position.
And after Sessegnon went, Di Canio was in a straitjacket of his own making because he did not have another option to play on the left wing, in his view.
“Seb Larsson cannot play on the wing for me in the system in which I want us to play,” he had told the Echo. Nor could Jack Colback, in the head coach’s view, with Di Canio favouring out-and-out attacking wingers in his 4-2-4 formation.
With James McClean sold, Charis Mavrias offered the only option on the left wing and Di Canio thought the £2.5million summer arrival from Panathinaikos was too inexperienced.
Even had he played Mavrias there, the Italian would have been reluctant to switch Giaccherini inside because he would have feared he was too lightweight and he wanted to play with two strikers and two central midfielders with physical presence.
On Tuesday, for the Capital One Cup tie against Peterborough, new boss Kevin Ball seized the nettle and played Giaccherini in the hole, having decided that Seb Larsson could more than hold his own on the flank.
The interim head coach was proved right on both counts and Giaccherini sparkled – creating and getting on the end of chances.
He’s not the deadliest of goalscorers, but he got the one that broke the deadlock in the cup tie and he also used and moved the ball with skill and intelligence throughout.
That’s not to get too carried away – we are just talking about one game, of course, and we are talking about League One opposition.
He played his best football for Sunderland so far on Tuesday night and the weight of evidence from Juventus would suggest that is where you are likely to get most out of him.
Ball has shown himself flexible in his approach already and admitted that the 4-4-1-1 system he played on Tuesday was the one he thought might best give Peterborough problems.
But with Fabio Borini unable to play against his parent club this weekend and Fletcher sidelined, there has got to be a strong case for retaining the system, particularly if it inspires the star signing of the summer.
Di Canio struggled across all his games this season getting his players to fit into his system.
Ball has chosen a system which suited the players, and, in doing so, has given fans a tantalising hope that improvements might be just around the corner for the team in general and perhaps Giaccherini in particular.
With Sunderland’s former “magic dust” player now plying his trade at West Brom, the Black Cats might just have found the footballer to replace him, a player who also has wonderful ball skills and might even prove to be more consistent and just as effective in that role.