ON THE OPENING day of the campaign, two of Sunderland’s new signings combined to demonstrate what they do best.
Substitute Jordi Gomez played a perfectly-weighted pass between right-back and centre-half, which Patrick van Aanholt raced onto and supplied the cross for Seb Larsson to grab an equaliser at West Brom.
That very same ploy was immediately evident again last weekend when van Aanholt surprisingly returned ahead of schedule to take his place in the Sunderland line-up.
Rather than being forced sideways or backwards, Gomez had someone to aim for in road runner van Aanholt, and Leeds’ defence was duly bisected regularly during the opening 45 minutes of the FA Cup third round tie.
Specialist left-back van Aanholt offers the balance to the side which Sunderland have lacked during his two months on the sidelines, with midfielder Gomez and winger Adam Johnson the only other natural left-footers available.
And with right-back Billy Jones also now back in the fold after three months out with a hamstring problem, Gus Poyet has both his first-choice full-backs available again.
Gomez believes that should not be underestimated.
While fingers have been pointed at the attackers for Sunderland’s meagre return of 18 goals in 20 Premier League outings this season, Gomez knows that the full-backs are a key ingredient in the Black Cats’ offensive threat, in a set-up which sees three in the middle of the park and one up front.
“In the system we play, the full-backs are very important,” said Gomez.
“With Patrick back, it gives us more width on the pitch and those runs in behind between the full-back and centre-back.
“I think it suits my style to play those passes.
“In this system, the full-backs are the ones who give you the width and for me, it’s good to have a player like him.
“Both Patrick and Billy will give us something different that we haven’t had available.”
The return of two other injury absentees during the Autumn, Emanuele Giaccherini and Ricky Alvarez, could have implications for Gomez and his spot in the team.
Summer signing Gomez has started each of Sunderland’s last seven games, with the ex-Wigan man preferred to £10million capture Jack Rodwell until the last two outings when they have lined up together in midfield.
But with Rodwell finally showing promise and Giaccherini capable of injecting some extra creativity into Sunderland’s approach play, Gomez’s spot as a first-team regular is under threat.
He said: “I’m here to help the team.
“I’ve said a lot of times before that if I play, I’ll do my best.
“I’ve obviously been playing lately so I’m happy with that.
“I’ve been working hard to get into the team, but no-one’s position is guaranteed.”
Poyet needs to land on a combination which can give Sunderland a greater goal return after the Black Cats failed to make the most of their dominance in their last home league game against Hull and then again 48 hours later at 10-man Aston Villa.
But there is no sense of panic emerging from the Sunderland camp at the lack of goals, nor the gap with the relegation zone being reduced to three points.
While there is a frustration at Sunderland’s inability to profit from golden opportunities to be further up the table, there is a quiet conviction that things will come good for the Black Cats.
“I think the season has been okay, but could have been better,” said Gomez. “We missed the chance against Aston Villa and at home against Hull City.
“But the team has confidence that we can get better and get more points than during the first half of the season.
“We’re working to avoid being in the relegation fight. Obviously, you have to go game by game, but we want to get some more wins and be in a more comfortable position.
“Playing against 10-men at Villa, we should have won that game.
“But we got a point and it’s hard to get points in the Premier League.
“One point was better than nothing and we need to do the right things to keep putting points on the board.
“We’re a difficult team to beat and we just have to be patient and I think the goals will come, as well as winning games.
“We’re only three points from the relegation places, but I think everyone knows we’re a difficult team to beat and it’s only a matter of time that we can turn those draws into wins.”
Last month’s stalemate at tomorrow’s opponents Liverpool was a prime example of a fluffed chance for Sunderland after the hosts were dire until the second half introduction of Steven Gerrard.
But despite Sunderland registering just one top flight win at the Stadium of Light this season, Gomez is confident Poyet’s men can go a step further this weekend.
“I think we had a good game there at Anfield, and now we’re playing at home, we’re confident we can get a good result and a win against them,” he added.
“We’ve been playing the top teams at home during the first half of the season and we’ve been getting some good draws against them.
“Hopefully we can get some home wins during the second half of the season.”
* Don’t miss tomorrow’s live matchday blog on Sunderland v Liverpool and much more – the build-up starts from 11am on http://www.sunderlandecho.com/sport/safc-live