THE NEAR six-month job induction is over for Martin O’Neill after a season’s finale which felt as if it would never conclude.
Now the true toil can begin. Now O’Neill can shape this Sunderland side in his chosen image, cast off the unwanted and suitably prepare the troops so months of ultimate graft are not followed by weeks of returning to old habits.
But when it comes to addressing Sunderland’s deficiencies in the transfer market, O’Neill intriguingly faces an almost identical situation to the one Steve Bruce tackled last summer.
There are several areas of the side which O’Neill could feasibly tinker with. A central midfielder or commanding centre-half would not go astray, while the goalkeeping situation is one which needs a final resolution, even though Craig Gordon’s exit looks increasingly like a fait accompli.
But the three glaring issues facing O’Neill are exactly the ones which Bruce tried and failed to address this time last year – a prolific striker to replace Darren Bent, pace and natural width on the flanks, plus a specialist left-back.
All three were sharply in evidence yesterday, on a day when the merits of mid-table Sunderland barely registered a flicker on the nation’s conscious as the title race unfolded to the most dramatic of conclusions.
The most glaring area for fresh blood is, of course, up front, with O’Neill’s decision to leave out Nicklas Bendtner surely the most blatant of signs that the Dane will not be sporting red and white again.
At times over a dominant opening 30 minutes from the visitors, Craig Gardner was the most advanced player in Sunderland’s attack.
It was a damning sign and, without that focal point in the final third, Sunderland’s promise on the counter-attack meandered into redundancy as United intercepted and broke up the indecisiveness of the hosts.
There were opportunities on the break too, with United boasting a dangerously high line, such was their determination to get the goals required to guarantee victory.
Sunderland improved vastly when Fraizer Campbell moved into an orthodox striker role alongside Stephane Sessegnon, yet, as at Fulham last week, the former Manchester United man fluffed his lines in front of goal when the opportunity presented itself.
There is still mitigation for Campbell until he benefits from a pre-season under his belt, while he unquestionably gave everything in the tank yesterday.
But when Sunderland had a 10-minute spell in either half when they burst out of their lethargy to properly press United, the Black Cats didn’t boast that presence in the penalty area who looked capable of levelling proceedings.
The importance of a winger capable of feeding that yet-to-be confirmed frontman cannot be underestimated either.
Bruce was desperate for a natural wideman last summer, mistakenly thrusting all his chips on Charles N’Zogbia before the Frenchman’s wage demands saw him become a sorry figure in the shadows at Villa Park.
Thankfully, Sunderland – not Bruce – got the left-winger they needed all along when Pop Robson’s ventures into the League of Ireland unearthed the brightest of gems in James McClean.
Yet Sunderland are lopsided. They need someone on the opposite flank capable of injecting a burst of pace to propel themselves to the wrong side of the full-back.
Seb Larsson performed admirably on the right flank before his campaign came to a premature conclusion and his contribution of eight goals from midfield is an asset Sunderland have lacked since returning to the Premier League.
But the Swede is not one to leave a left-back wheezing, even if Sunderland toiled to replace him yesterday.
Sunderland boasted four players on the right, with Campbell starting there before moving inside, Craig Gardner enjoying a brief 10 minutes before John O’Shea’s injury saw Ahmed Elmohamady introduced and then Sessegnon finishing the game out on the flank after Connor Wickham’s arrival.
It simply proved that Sunderland have relatively few options out wide who could be considered regulars, beyond Larsson and McClean.
The Black Cats have been fortunate that the latter has remained an ever-present in 2012, yet should the Irish international succumb to injury, they will return to those ugly days of midfielders or strikers being shoe-horned into wide roles.
That is unless the likes of a Junior Hoilett or Victor Moses are signed over the summer.
But right wing wasn’t the only position that had a conveyor belt of players yesterday.
John O’Shea, Phil Bardsley and Wayne Bridge were all deployed at left-back to mixed effect, in a position that has become a byword for make-do over the last three years for Sunderland.
Kieran Richardson would arguably have played there if fit, although, given the 27-year-old has just a year left on his contract, his future will doubtless come under scrutiny this summer.
O’Shea, who had swapped full-back roles with Bardsley from seven days earlier, endured a torrid time in the pace mismatch with Antonio Valencia, before a calf strain brought a premature end to his first ever meeting against Manchester United.
Valencia was salivating at the prospect of every foot race against O’Shea, until Bardsley and subsequently Bridge produced a more subdued contribution from the Ecuadorian.
It simply confirmed the view that O’Shea is a different performer altogether at centre-half.
Whether finding a natural left-back rates on the same priority scale as a new striker or two is a moot point, but surely O’Neill must provide some closure for a transfer objective that has consumed Sunderland since Bruce’s arrival.
At least, O’Neill is now well aware of Sunderland’s requirements this summer after a finale to the campaign which has unmasked the deficiencies amid the Black Cats’ ranks.
Losing to United on a mind-mashing final day only sharpened the glare on those positions where Sunderland are ill-equipped and under-manned.
If O’Neill can find the necessary solutions this summer, then the final month of next season shouldn’t be such redundant and meaningless viewing.