Creeping behind enemy lines, Alan Shearer tried to unearth the secret to Sunderland’s success at Crystal Palace when he interviewed Sam Allardyce at the Academy of Light last week.
If only Steve McClaren could have done that... will have been the inevitable thought running through Shearer’s head as he was forced to assess his beloved Newcastle’s obliteration by a side who Sunderland had thwarted so effectively.
Sunderland are not shipping goals and that always provides an opportunity to nick points late in the game
But there was a pointed comment from Shearer when it came to judging Sunderland and Allardyce’s rejuvenation on Match of the Day.
“He was made for that job,” remarked the ex-Magpies frontman.
It’s early days for such sweeping statements. Sunderland could well find themselves cut adrift of safety again at the end of a month which sees them face Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.
But perhaps, just perhaps, Shearer is onto something.
When he succeeded Dick Advocaat at the helm, Allardyce immediately looked to be the right man at the right time to take charge of Sunderland; the candidate who fit the remit of instilling some defensive, no-nonsense resilience into a side which was a laughingly soft touch.
He is doing exactly what it says on the tin.
A team which was conceding an average of roughly two-and-a-half goals per game, has suddenly registered back-to-back clean sheets.
Those solid defensive foundations are the building blocks of Allardyce’s success as a manager.
It’s exactly what he did when he took charge of a labouring Blackburn side midway through the 2008-09 campaign. A tally of seven clean sheets from 21 games saw the Ewood Park outfit comfortably beat relegation by the end of that season.
And in this year’s relegation fight, where none of the current bottom three seem capable of registering a shut-out – the goals conceded on Saturday by both Aston Villa and Newcastle are proof of that – then clean sheets could be the currency for survival.
That could be Sunderland’s trump card.
After all, Crystal Palace (last Monday) and Stoke (on Saturday) created just one clear-cut opportunity between them – Jonathan Walters’ effort thwarted by Costel Pantilimon in one of those look-to-the heavens moments, just as the Stadium of Light was paying tribute to sadly-departed former keeper Marton Fulop.
It seems slightly perverse to be talking about Sunderland’s defensive resilience on the back of the horrifying quantity of individual clangers and cheap goals conceded in the opening 11 games.
But it’s a mark of Allardyce’s transforming powers on the training ground, particularly after landing upon a system which seems to perfectly suit the personnel at his disposal.
Take the three centre-halves. Individually, all were culpable in the opening exchanges of this season and the thought of playing one of them, let alone three, was enough to spark a bout of anxiety.
Allardyce has concentrated a lot of his time working personally with the trio, though, and they now appear to be a unit who complement each other well – John O’Shea the organiser, Younes Kaboul the one happy to bring the ball out from the back and Sebastian Coates the old-fashioned defender ready to put his body on the line.
Likewise, the wing-backs are far more comfortable in that role, than as orthodox full-backs, particularly Saturday’s unlikely goal hero, Patrick van Aanholt.
The Dutchman’s admission that he was “very bad” earlier in the season is no understatement, yet with an extra layer of defensive protection, he can use his lightning pace going forward.
With Yann M’Vila and Lee Cattermole – arguably Sunderland’s two most influential players – providing a solid midfield base, the Black Cats have some defensive back-bone.
Cattermole and M’Vila completely neutered Stoke’s midfield creators Charlie Adam and Bojan, even before Ryan Shawcross’s dismissal for two bookable offences had changed the complexion of the encounter early in the second half.
Even if it’s regularly more of a 5-3-2, than 3-5-2, Sunderland are not shipping goals and that always provides an opportunity to nick points late in the game, as has proved the case in the last two outings.
Allardyce has far more attacking options at his disposal than Gus Poyet could boast at the same stage of last season too.
The early loss of Jermain Defoe could have been a severe setback to Sunderland on the back of his winner at Palace, yet it simply proved an opportunity.
Rather than being smashed around by Stoke’s physically-imposing defenders, Duncan Watmore ran them ragged; finding space, weaving out of danger and chasing lost causes.
Shawcross may have been unfortunate with his second yellow card, yet the challenge stemmed from his concern over Watmore after being lucky to escape for smashing into the 21-year-old prior to his first booking.
While Watmore rightly took the plaudits, the other attacking introductions from the bench also made their mark.
Jeremain Lens set up good chances for M’Vila and Coates which required Jack Butland to demonstrate his reflexes, while Adam Johnson won the free-kick and provided the lay-off for van Aanholt’s oh-so-important opener.
It was a collective effort from Sunderland to reach that hallowed achievement of back-to-back wins.
But then, that’s the noticeable difference.
Sunderland are playing as a proper team again now.