PRE-SEASON friendlies are notoriously poor indicators of the season ahead but Gus Poyet’s 4-1-4-1 formation at Heritage Park at the weekend, feels like the shape of things to come for Sunderland in the 2014-15 season.
The Black Cats head coach played 22 players and gave debuts to Costel Pantilimon, Jordi Gomez and Billy Jones but retained the same system for both halves.
His starting line-up included Duncan Watmore at right-back and Billy Jones at left-back - and acknowledgement of shortages of options in the current squad - as well as trialist Max Clayton on the right-wing and fellow youngsters El-Hadji Ba and George Honeyman in midfield.
But it was the formation which caught the eye as the Black Cats outclassed a Darlington 1883 side which regularly struggled to get anywhere near slick Sunderland.
Steven Fletcher was given the lone role up front - one which he might play regularly for the first team this season, while Cabral was given the sitting midfielder job, one which is expected to be the preserve of Lee Cattermole and Liam Bridcutt in the campaign ahead.
The Wearsiders were up against non-league opposition - seven leagues below them - in the shape of a Darlo outfit managed by former Sunderland midfielder Martin Gray.
Even so, the Wearsiders’ domination was impressive in both halves as they hogged possession and passed impressively on a rain-sodden surface.
Darlington started brightly with Amar Purewal directing a Graham Armstrong right-wing cross wide of Vito Mannone’s goal in the fourth minute.
But Sunderland took the lead in the 13th when Watmore dinked a ball to Clayton who advanced up the right and squared.
The ball reached Fletcher in front of an open goal and the Scottish international swivelled and passed the ball into the net from four yards out.
Seven minutes later and Fletcher was on the scoresheet again, once more with the most casual of finishes.
Once again it was Watmore who was there at the start of the move, this time Ba and Honeyman combining to present the ball at the feet of Fletcher, who was on the move in the box and simply stroked the ball home in his stride from close range.
A few minutes later, Darlo keeper Peter Jameson produced a fine double save from Fletcher as the game threatened to become totally one-sided.
But to Darlington’s credit they kept working hard and had two great chances to level in the space of a minute after the half-hour.
In the 36th minute Chris Hunter crossed from the right and Purewal somehow shinned the ball over the cross bar from close range.
Then in the 37th minute Adam Mitchell’s crosss was met by a firm close-range header from Armstrong which Mannnone did brilliantly to block on his goal-line.
Those moments survived, Sunderland finished the opening 45 minutes on top again with Ba twice going close to extending the lead.
Half-time: Darlington 1883 0 Sunderland 2
Poyet changed his whole team at half-time but retained the formation - Cattermole sitting in, Connnor Wickham leading the line.
And it wasn’t long before Sunderland re-established their superiority.
They went 3-0 up in the 47th minute when Alfred N’Diaye and Wickham worked well to get the ball to Emmanuele Giaccherini who crashed a shot across keeper Mark Bell from the left of goal, just inside the area.
Ten minutes later, Wickham went alone and pulled a fine save out of Bell, just minutes after Charis Mavrias had had an excellent appeal for a penalty rejected.
And just after the hour, Wickham swept a across goal when he would have expected to hit the target.
Wickham finally got on the scoresheet in the 70th minute when kept a Mavrias deep cross from the right alive on the left and then smacked a shot home from a narrow angle.
It was an emphatic finish and Sunderland fans in the sell-out crowd might have expected a rout as a finale.
But after the sublime came the ridiculous - Wes Brown treading on the ball in his own area as he looked to complete the simplest of clearances in the 72nd minute.
Namesake and fellow defender Gary Brown nipped in to fire past the exposed Pantilimon.
That threatened to take a little of the shine off the performance but Jordi Gomez restored the lustre 10 minutes later when the ball dropped to him on the edge of the area and he struck the sweetest of left-foot volleys to leave keeper Bell snatching at fresh air.
The final victory was as comfortable as the scoreline suggested.
Sunderland’s pre-season is up and running, with this match providing the perfect loosener for Gus Poyet’s men
Final score: Darlington 1883 1 Sunderland 5
Sunderland (4-1-4-1) Mannone (sub Pantilimon 46), Watmore (sub Mavrias 46), O’Shea (sub Diakite 46), Roberge (sub Brown 46), Jones (sub Ferguson 46), Cabral (sub Cattermole 46), Honeyman (sub Moberg Karlsson 46), Larsson (sub Giaccherini 46), Ba (sub N’Diaye 46), Clayton (sub Gomez 46), Fletcher (sub Wickham 46).
Darlington: (4-4-2) Jameson, Brown, Hatch, Hunter, Walker, Mitchell, Galbraith, Portas, Purewal, Armstrong, Thompson. (Darlington second-half changes: Bell, White, Fisher, Hopson, Fyatt, Cocks.)
Ref: D. Webb.