GUS Poyet has been the Jigsaw Man since his arrival at Sunderland five months ago tomorrow, patiently trying to put together the pieces that might form a successful side.
Last weekend, the final and most difficult piece of the puzzle fell into place when Fabio Borini started up front in the Capital One Cup final and proved not only to be his side’s goal hero but most people’s man-of-the-match.
Poyet’s relief at finding a genuinely impressive Sunderland team – from goalkeeper all the way through to striker – must have almost as great as Jozy Altidore’s dismay at finding he had no part to play in it.
But there can be no doubt that Borini’s willing, selfless and, above all, effective performance up top demonstrated that he can play the lone striker’s role despite his lack of physical presence.
It should be pointed out that the starting XI which Poyet selects against Hull City in the FA Cup this weekend remains to be seen – especially with seven of his senior players having been involved on international duty in midweek following their Wembley heroics last Sunday.
But there’s a sense that the Uruguayan now knows his best side for the remainder of the season.
He obviously had preconceived idea of his squad’s strengths and weaknesses upon his arrival back in October.
But a clear picture only started to emerge after his third game in charge – the 2-0 defeat at Hull City which marked the first-team return of Wes Brown and the league debut, as substitute, of keeper Vito Mannone.
Fit-again Brown’s inclusion was a no-brainer and the modest Poyet has said he counts himself more fortunate than either Paolo Di Canio, Martin O’Neill or Steve Bruce, in being able to call on the ex-Manchester United star regularly.
Brown’s central defensive pairing with John O’Shea similarly required little mental exertion on Poyet’s behalf.
But the inclusion of Mannone taxed Poyet with what he described as one of his toughest decisions of the season, when he opted to play the Italian in the following league game against Manchester City rather than Keiren Westwood, who was injured but still available.
Mannone’s instant outstanding form gave Poyet the foundation of his defence.
He got one of his full-backs immediately when right-back Phil Bardsley grabbed with both hands the chance of redemption offered him, and he got his left-back in January when Marcos Alonso joined on loan from Fiorentina and hit the ground running.
Moving forward into midfield, Lee Cattermole, Jack Colback, Seb Larsson and Ki Sung-Yueng all made early cases for regular inclusion, but Adam Johnson proved more problematic.
Poyet admitted the coaching staff experimented with the former Manchester City man more than anyone – left wing, right wing, behind the striker, coming off the bench – recognising his obvious talent but struggling to find the right way to unleash it.
Eventually they found the perfect position for him – on the right wing, receiving good service facing goal on the edge of the opposition box, rather than near the halfway line.
The result was such a resurgence in the Easington-born winger’s form that he won the Barclays Premier League Player of the Month award for January.
That left only the left wing and up front to resolve and the wide slot has been dealt with on an ad hoc basis with Borini, Emanuele Giaccherini and Colback largely sharing the position – especially when Seb Larsson or Craig Gardner was added to the central midfield mix.
The compromise worked well enough, with Borini threatening to make the position his own on the back of hard-working displays and developing an attacking and defensive partnership down the flank with Alonso.
Up front was now the only remaining problem position, with Altidore the obvious choice in the wake of Steven Fletcher’s patchy, injury-hit availability.
But the obvious choice has rarely worked all season, with the American scoring only one Premier League goal so far and the recent Arsenal game, in particular, exposed his lack of influence on games.
While it’s true that Altidore did not receive much in the way of service, it was significant that he cut a becalmed figure up front, and that static look has too often been a feature of his game this season.
That afternoon at the Emirates was enough for Poyet to grasp the nettle on Wembley day and opt to give the energetic Borini the chance up front that the on-loan Liverpool man has craved since the start of the season.
It was a leap of faith by Poyet and a bold, bold change to the way Sunderland have played this season.
But it worked incredibly well at Wembley, with Borini continually on the move across the City backline, stretching their defence, while his runs were intelligently picked out by the likes of Cattermole, Larsson, Ki, and, in particular, Johnson.
And not only did it result in Sunderland’s goal at Wembley, it could have resulted in one or two more against a Champions League side which eventually got out of jail through two world-class strikes.
Poyet is nothing if not an intelligent man, and what he saw last Sunday would have looked like the best and most cohesive Sunderland side at his disposal – with substitutes Gardner, Fletcher, Giaccherini and beyond that Liam Bridcutt, Santiago Vergini and Scocco all coming into the mix.
It leaves Altidore – the go-to striker for so much of the season – the odd man out.
And how the American is able to respond to the switch will define his destiny on Wearside.
But hurt pride and hurt feelings are the least of Sunderland’s problems at the moment.
They currently face a big opportunity in the cup and a massive concern in the league.
If Poyet has finally found a winning formula, from defence through midfield to attack, he should stick with it.
And that will mean, for now, Borini has gone from misfit in Poyet’s first few weeks in charge; to main man now.