Sunderland look tired and out of ideas ahead of a defining managerial appointment
It was another game in which by the end, you were left waiting for the siege that never materialised.
Other than some lofted long balls from Darron Gibson, easily headed away by Daniel Ayala, Sunderland barely troubled Middlesbrough in the closing stages, even as the prospect of another defeat and a humiliating drop to the bottom of the table beckoned.
It rather summed up this season so far, a bright start that counted for little once a cheap goal was given away.
There were some bright patches in the first half but eventually it was a painfully familiar sight, Sunderland seemingly out of legs and certainly out of ideas.
The selection from caretaker duo Robbie Stockdale and Billy McKinlay hinted at a change of direction, a reinforcement of the central areas and a determination to make the team harder to play through, even if that came at the expense of pace and creativity in the wide areas.
Paddy McNair moved up to support Lewis Grabban and Didier Ndong took up an unfamiliar position on the right wing.
The changes made little difference to Sunderland’s performance.
Though they moved the ball better in the first half than they have done at times this season, ultimately they came no closer to the kind of cohesive team performance that can deliver three points.
Six months on from their last visit to Teesside, Sunderland have changed divisions, changed manager, changed much of their squad, and yet are plagued by the same problems and still have no discernible playing identity.
That night they were insipid, and while this was certainly not as woeful, it was reminiscent in many ways.
Little coincidence, perhaps, given that the spine of the side has not changed a great deal.
Marc Wilson has replaced Jason Denayer alongside John O’Shea but looks no more imposing, while Darron Gibson and Lee Cattermole again lined up in a midfield two that offered little protection to the back four and little support to the front line.
It is a spine badly lacking pace and invention.
Whoever the new manager may be, they could make a big statement at the start of their tenure by overhauling the central area and allowing Williams, Ndong and McNair to form a trident with energy and creativity.
At the moment, the platform simply isn’t there.
It was certainly an afternoon that underlined the need for fresh ideas and a fresh voice to pick up a squad that is clearly lacking confidence.
Sunderland at the moment look like a tired side, physically and mentally, in need of a new start. That is easier said than done, particularly when there is unlikely to be a significant injection of capital into the playing squad come January.
One hopes that come the end of the season fears of a disastrous relegation are misplaced, that this anxiety looks over the top and kneejerk.
It certainly does not feel like it at the moment, Sunderland deservedly bottom and currently on track to pick up just 28 points over the course of the season.
Attention now turns to who will take their place in the dug-out when Millwall arrive at the Stadium of Light in just under a fortnight’s time.
It has been said many times in recent days but it is worth repeating, over and over again.
It simply must be an excellent coach and a personality capable of breaking the feeling of helplessness and apathy on Wearside.
Cheap and ‘safe’ is simply no longer an option.