ON THE face of it, Sunderland’s investment in Jermain Defoe looked to have been a huge allocation of the club’s resources.
A three-and-a-half year deal on £50-60,000 per week, with minimal – if any – resale value for a player who will be almost 36 by the end of his contract at the Stadium of Light.
The headline figures were significant in making Defoe the best-paid player at the club.
But delve beneath the surface, and Sunderland have paid peanuts by Premier League standards for Defoe after the first instalment of payback in a huge result against Burnley.
Yes, ideally, there are still other areas of Sunderland’s squad which could do with strengthening before tonight’s deadline, but that applies to every club in the bottom half of the table.
Sunderland’s squad was never going to be perfect after just a couple of restorative transfer windows either, particularly with the damage inflicted by Roberto De Fanti’s dud signings to unpick.
No-one wanted to see another January flop of Nacho Scocco’s ilk.
In Defoe, Sunderland are essentially paying an extra £1.5-2million a year in wages to the salary being banked by Jozy Altidore. That’s it.
Let’s say, Defoe adds another five goals which help Sunderland on their way to four Premier League victories – a tally which would take the Black Cats to the precipice of top-flight survival.
That couple of million extra on the balance sheet will have more than been covered by the multi-million cash cow of Premier League football.
Even if Defoe does zilch for the other three years of his Sunderland contract, those wages still represent a bargain compared to the financial hardship of relegation to the Championship.
Just look at tomorrow night’s opponents Fulham to see how the drop can decimate a club.
And while everyone would like to see Sunderland making signings for the future as part of a long-term transfer strategy, we are dealing with the here and now.
In the here and now, Defoe scores goals. Altidore doesn’t.
The England striker’s first in red and white was a masterclass in goal-poaching – beat the offside trap, lose the defender and tap the ball into the net from being in the right place, at the right time.
The comparison on Match of the Day later on Saturday between Defoe’s finish and Altidore’s horrible miss against West Ham was a worthy one.
That makes the difference at this level.
Burnley’s defenders were clearly wary of Defoe throughout his 75 minutes on the field, but they were backing off him for a reason.
Given his previous though, there was always a quiet confidence that Defoe would score goals in a Sunderland shirt.
The bigger questions were whether he would receive sufficient service or if he would be used suitably in Gus Poyet’s set-up.
At the third time of asking, Sunderland answered both of those queries.
When Defoe first began training with Sunderland, the initial ploy was to tuck Connor Wickham and Adam Johnson in off the flanks to support the ex-Spurs frontman. By Poyet’s own admission “it wasn’t fantastic”.
But Poyet went back to his gut reaction against Burnley, abandoned the ploy of three central defenders and Sunderland subsequently looked as comfortable as they have done in 2015, albeit they were helped by an opening goal inside 25 minutes.
Wickham’s header settled the nerves which had understandably been swirling around Wearside all week and the confidence seeped back into Sunderland’s ranks.
The sight of the 21-year-old heading home at the back post, while Defoe moved to the near post, was particularly encouraging though.
Two strikers in the box equals goals. Who’d have thought?
But this wasn’t “good old” 4-4-2.
Wickham had far fewer defensive responsibilities than he had earlier in the campaign from a wide position, and persistently tucked inside alongside Defoe.
It’s a position which probably suits Wickham more than playing as an orthodox targetman, not least because it gives him the opportunity to stretch his legs with those powerful, long runs with the ball at his feet.
On the other flank too, fit-again Adam Johnson was given the licence to drift inside into the hole behind Defoe, albeit much of his good work came with picking out the overlapping runs of Patrick van Aanholt.
But it wasn’t just the tweaks to the front three which saw the return to Poyet’s favoured 4-3-3 formation pay off.
The whole team had more of an attacking focus after being pushed 10 yards further forward.
Even when Sunderland were 2-0 up, Poyet could be seen urging his midfielders to move up the field.
It was a welcome change after too many games at the Stadium of Light this season when the Black Cats have been perilously deep and invited pressure, rather than taking the initiative themselves.
Van Aanholt and the equally excellent Anthony Reveillere were able to regularly get forwards as a result, with the pair responsible for both goals.
Burnley simply couldn’t track or contain van Aanholt’s regular forays to the by-line, while Reveillere – in only the second game he has played for Sunderland in his favoured right-back position – again showed how much of a polished, Rolls-Royce defender he is, despite a month on the sidelines.
The cross alone for Wickham’s fourth of the season was a beauty.
After a week of scrutiny on Poyet, the Sunderland boss reaped the rewards for his positive approach.
It wasn’t a thrill-a-minute performance, while the second half was a pragmatic case of killing the game and ensuring Burnley didn’t have a sniff of a comeback.
Sunderland will face sterner tests when they come up against their fellow strugglers during the rest of this season too.
Considering Sean Dyche’s men have built their revival over recent months on harrying and hassling the opposition, Burnley were poor.
Perhaps the magnitude of the game got to them.
Certainly, in-demand Danny Ings wasn’t mentally focused or in any way effective after speculation linking him with a move to Liverpool. But, considering the background to the game, the slump Sunderland had found themselves in and their troubles at the Stadium of Light this season, it was an excellent display from the hosts.
They showed their character in handling a high-pressured situation.
Victory allows Sunderland to attack tomorrow’s FA Cup fourth round replay at Fulham with relish, while providing the foundation for a pivotal run of games.
If Sunderland can win two of their next three Premier League fixtures – Saturday’s trip to Swansea, the visit of travel-sick QPR three days later and then the home clash with West Brom – it will put the Black Cats in a strong position to avoid an end-of-season nail-biter.
Poyet is right. Sunderland cannot rest on their laurels and think they’ve cracked it after just one win.
But Sunderland needed to stop the rot.
They needed to breathe a little easier at the wrong end of the Premier League table.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Reveillere, Vergini, O’Shea, van Aanholt, Bridcutt, Gomez, Larsson, Johnson (Alvarez 86), Wickham (Graham 76), Defoe (Fletcher 75). Subs not used: Mannone, Jones, Alvarez, Coates, Giaccherini. Booked: Johnson (69), Larsson (88), Pantilimon (90)
BURNLEY: Heaton, Trippier, Shackell, Keane, Mee, Jones, Marney, Arfield, Boyd (Wallace 61), Ings (Jutkiewicz 61), Barnes (Vokes 76). Subs not used: Gilks, Duff, Kightly, Reid. Booked: Marney (90)
Attendance: 44,022. Referee: Lee Mason