Friday spotlight: Ten games in, and Sunderland boss Poyet has three straws to grasp

Gus Poyet
Gus Poyet
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AT the start of every season, supporters (and reporters) are told never to read too much into early and quirky results – with good reason too.

Last season, Manchester United lost their opening game of the season to Everton, sparking the usual “oohs” and “aahs” of speculation.

But the Red Devils won the league by a street – 11 points clear of runners-up Manchester City and, incidentally, 26 points ahead of Everton.

Wigan won two out of their first three games last season but were still relegation material come May.

No, wait until 10 games, football managers will tell you before start making judgements.

There are, of course, some who will say the league doesn’t really shape up until Christmas.

But the usual early-season weapon of choice when it comes to fending off awkward, unwanted inquests is: “Wait until 10 games, then you’ll start getting some answers.”

And that’s interesting because, 10 games into Sunderland’s season, we are left with far more questions than answers.

Here are just a few:

What is Sunderland’s best XI?

What formation suits the Black Cats best?

Who is/are the lead strikers?

What is the best back four at the club’s disposal?

When will the team keep a clean sheet in the league this season?

OK, I’ll admit I threw that last flippant one in just to check if you were still awake.

But the others are fundamentals, real fundamentals, which remain unanswered with a quarter of a season gone.

What is beyond question is that Sunderland’s Premier League status is in the deepest peril and new head coach Gus Poyet knows that he has to address all of the above issues.

That’s precisely what he is going to do after this weekend’s game against Manchester City.

Poyet told us that he feels he will know enough by the time of the forthcoming international break to write a dossier on every one of the players in his squad as he plans the route ahead for the remainder of the season and the forthcoming transfer window.

He has a variety of options all the way across his midfield – that’s the least of his worries – so his attention is likely to be primarily taken up by attack and defence.

Up front, Sunderland have mustered a measly seven goals in 10 Premier League games and only THREE of those have been scored by strikers – Steven Fletcher in the 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace and Fletcher and Fabio Borini in the 2-1 victory over Newcastle United.

How does Poyet get more goals from his players in general?

In particular, how does he get more goals from the strikers at his disposal?

Connor Wickham is out on loan, Ji Dong-won is nowhere near the first team, Fletcher is the most likely to score but has two in seven games, Borini has one in six appearances and looks lightweight, while Jozy Altidore has all of the physical presence but none of the goals in nine Premier League appearances.

The situation is equally as problematic at the back where Sunderland are yet to keep a clean sheet in the Premier League this season.

They have avoided a pasting by any side – though the 4-0 defeat to Swansea was heading in that direction – but have still been conceding goals with alarming regularity, particularly from set-pieces.

Heading into Sunday’s game against Manchester City, the Black Cats are currently shipping 2.2 goals per game.

No side can sustain that sort of statistic over the course of the season and hope to survive in the Premier League.

After 10 games, we have a licence to draw conclusions about how the season is panning out and those conclusions can only be gloomy ones as far as Sunderland are concerned.

Poyet has three straws to grasp at, three hopes to cling on to, as he prepares his half-term reports.

The first must be Wes Brown – if the former Manchester United ace can give Sunderland just 20 full games this season, it might be enough to turn the defensive tide and make cleans sheets more than just a thing of the past.

The second is the hope that one, two, or all three of his main strikers come to the party.

Fletcher has the predator’s instinct but has not been seeing enough of the ball in dangerous positions; Borini can score goals from the Gods but is bedevilled by slight physique and patchy form; Altidore has tended to score his goals in batches, so Poyet can only hope that the most of purple patches lies ahead for the young American.

Thirdly, Poyet must hope for a good transfer window.

Sunderland have little room for manoeuvre with their current wage bill and will look to offload, but, after two atrocious transfer windows for the Black Cats, Poyet must conjure up a great one.

It may already be too late for Sunderland by January, of course.

But if not, then two or three well-judged signings might just be enough to give the Wearsiders a fighting chance in the second half of the campaign.

After 10 games, we know nothing good about Sunderland’s season.

Supporters will have to hope for a happier Christmas.

Twitter @sunechograeme