THE INITIAL building blocks for Gus Poyet’s blueprint to change Sunderland’s fortunes revolved around ball retention and greater defensive solidity.
Neither have been apparent in the last month.
Amid the stream of changes in personnel and systems since that FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Hull City brought an abrupt halt to Sunderland’s forward momentum, the Black Cats have descended back into old habits.
How much blame does Poyet have to take for that?
Well, precious few of his decisions have paid off since the Capital One Cup final and he has confessed to making several mistakes.
There has been an air of desperation in Poyet’s thinking, rather than the single-mindedness he showed when he first arrived at the Stadium of Light.
But, by definition, Poyet has been desperate to put points on the board and has needed to gamble. After all, when he reverted to the status quo at Norwich by naming the same XI which triumphed in the Tyne-Wear derby, it resulted in one of Sunderland’s most pathetic showings in this sorry season.
As Sunderland have edged closer to the trapdoor, the intriguing aspect of Poyet’s management is that he has slipped into the rhetoric of his two predecessors – questioning the mentality at the club and suggesting that the players at his disposal simply aren’t up to scratch.
While Paolo Di Canio’s man-management was woeful, some of his ideas and pronouncements were not entirely without foundation.
Poyet has done it far more subtly, yet the last three managers have all come to the same conclusion.
When they are all hitting the same dead end, it would be incredibly short-sighted to look as far as the man in the dug-out as the cause of the club’s problems.
Root and branch reform is needed in the Championship. Ellis Short needs to stick with Poyet to do it, even if it takes several seasons to achieve.
There’s no point bringing in a new manager, who then takes another six months before coming to the same conclusions.
But while the lion’s share of blame for Sunderland’s impending relegation has to fall elsewhere – predominantly Di Canio and Roberto De Fanti for last summer’s spending spree – Poyet is culpable for the lack of impact made by his January signings.
The transfer window was always going to be pivotal in Sunderland’s hopes of beating the drop.
Sunderland needed recruits who could hit the ground running and ensure that when the Black Cats did suffer an inevitable dip from their purple patch at the turn of 2013, it didn’t prove to be fatal.
It’s what Steve Bruce has done so well by bringing in Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic at Hull.
That brief has not been fulfilled.
Back-up goalkeeper Oscar Ustari has looked assured in his three cup outings and will be unfortunate if he is released when his short-term contract expires in the summer, as part of Sunderland’s cost-cutting cull.
Marcos Alonso has suffered a dip in performances as Sunderland’s results have slumped, yet has undoubtedly improved Poyet’s options at left-back and, again, would have hoped to earn a longer stay on Wearside if the Black Cats were still in the Premier League.
But it is the other three recruits where the question marks have to be raised over Poyet’s judgement, albeit no manager enjoys total success in the unpredictable world of the transfer market.
Santiago Vergini looked better in the opening hour at White Hart Lane on Monday, yet completely fell to pieces – as admittedly did the rest of the side – in the final stages.
Yes, the Premier League provides a steep learning curve, yet other than the FA Cup win over Southampton, Vergini’s nerve-ridden displays have given little indication that he is worthy of signing permanently when his loan spell expires in the summer.
Fellow Argentine Nacho Scocco has been a far bigger disappointment though.
Poyet had high hopes after splashing out £4million on Scocco; believing the 28-year-old could offer a touch of magic during the run-in once he had shaken off the rust from the close season in Brazil.
But it’s being kind to say Scocco has been underwhelming.
He looked marginally sharper and at least had a meaningful effort at Tottenham, but that says everything about his previous contribution.
It’s harsh on the whole-hearted Liam Bridcutt to judge him as severely as Vergini or Scocco.
The £2.5m arrival would shine if he was in a better side or in a midfield where his water-carrying role was a key cog in the jigsaw.
Poyet clearly saw Bridcutt playing an integral part in his long-term vision after moulding the former Chelsea youngster at Brighton. That’s why he spent the whole of January chasing the 24-year-old.
But the reservations which predated Bridcutt’s signing remain.
First, is he any better than fellow defensive midfielder Lee Cattermole?
Secondly, Bridcutt does not offer a goal threat. That was a clear priority for Sunderland in the window.
Presuming Bridcutt is back plying his trade in the Championship next season, he needs to be a key figure, as does Scocco, particularly as there will be such a dramatic overhaul of the playing squad this summer.
Poyet needs some long-term value from his questionable short-term acquisitions.