Chris Coleman vows to mix things up '“ this is one card he has left to play
Chris Coleman had hoped this international break would be a chance to dwell on some much-needed positivity, Sunderland's gap to safety cut to two points and the prospect of an uplifting end to the season hanging in the air.
Instead, another flat performance against Preston has left most fans steeling themselves for the ignominy of another relegation and the prospect of a season, at least, in League One.
With SAFC at its lowest ebb for a generation, debate will rightly begin on where the club goes from here, how it can bounce back and what is needed.
Coleman, while adamant that Sunderland cannot be ruled out yet, made it quite clear in his post-match comments that the omens are not good.
He will take some time this week to take stock and then try to come up with something different before next Friday’s visit to Derby.
It feels like, for this season at least, the last roll of the dice.
After Derby, his side face Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United and Norwich City in a two-week period. If they have not slashed the gap by then, they will be down.
“The next two weeks are a little bit of a breather from it, it gives us a breather from where we are and that will give us a little spring maybe,” Coleman said.
“It also gives me a chance to step back from it and ask if I can come up with something to change it enough and go down a different path to get different results.
“At the minute, I’ve got nothing in mind, but, for the second week, we’ll have to look at different formations and personnel to get away from the road we’re on at the minute because it’s a pretty negative one.”
It will be interesting to see what changes, as it feels as if Coleman has exhausted just about every avenue available with this squad of players.
The five-man defence has sparked intense debate from the moment it was introduced, but, with Jake Clarke-Salter suspended for another two games and Tyias Browning out for the season, his options are very much reduced.
The problem he has is that when he has moved to four defenders, in the search of greater attacking threat, his team have flopped spectacularly.
There was the superb ‘Bristanbul’ comeback, but when Aiden McGeady was handed a start in an aggressive formation the next week, Sunderland delivered one of their worst performances of the season against Brentford.
It has been that way all season, with both McGeady and Callum McManaman offering fleeting moments backed up by desperately disappointing displays.
So Coleman’s prospects of salvation are limited in the extreme.
In midfield, the return of Paddy McNair will make a difference, his height and drive a noticeable and significant miss when he has been injured.
He will hope, too, that on-loan Ovie Ejaria continues his promising form and finds an extra gear in the final six weeks of the season.
Inevitably, he was dragged down in the second half, but, against Preston, he showed a willingness to try to beat players and play his way out of trouble – something that has been too infrequent all season.
His last card to play is probably 27-year-old Kazenga LuaLua.
His signing was a gamble, Coleman hoping to use the ex-Brighton man’s pace and direct style to add a different dimension through the middle of the pitch.
Inevitably, he has been hampered by ankle problems from the moment he arrived on Wearside.
Fit again, he will surely be at the heart of any revamp, whether it be as a second striker or in his familiar wing role, where Coleman’s other options have disappointed.
It will not come as much solace to most supporters, who have spent most of the season hoping for an uplift from returning players that has never arrived. Sunderland’s season looks to be drifting towards the drop.
Coleman, though, knows he cannot afford to let it end with a whimper.
He will keep shuffling the pack and, in LuaLua, he has one last alternative to try.