BY NECESSITY, the caution has ebbed away from Sunderland’s game over the last month or so.
There was too much of a “safety-first” element to the Black Cats in the first half of the season, largely through Gus Poyet’s desire to shore up the defence first and foremost.
While Sunderland were resilient, difficult-to-beat opposition, their attacking threat was minimal – usually no more than a couple of chances a game to profit from.
It’s why Poyet’s men are just four shy of equalling the Premier League record for draws, eight of which have been drab stalemates.
But the dual quandaries of squeezing Jermain Defoe into a front two, plus the increasingly pressing need for victories to create daylight with the relegation zone, have forced Poyet to be more forward-thinking.
For the first time since his opening month in the Sunderland hotseat, Poyet has deployed an orthodox 4-4-2, with two wingers and two strikers.
It hasn’t transmitted into goals, with Sunderland drawing a blank for three games on the spin.
But, while the quality may have been questionable, it was certainly not a lack of ambition which saw Sunderland predictably held to a goalless draw by Tony Pulis’s West Brom last weekend.
Tomorrow’s trip to a hunting ground which proved to be so fruitful for Sunderland last season will provide an intriguing insight of the Black Cats’ mentality.
It would be daft to go needlessly gung-ho against a Manchester United side rich in attacking talent, regardless of the continued scrutiny over the progress and style overseen by Louis van Gaal.
Although Robin van Persie is out, Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Juan Mata are hardly shabby alternatives, especially for a side who have won 10 of their 13 Premier League home outings this season.
But United continue to concede soft goals. Attack may not be the worst form of defence.
Space will be given to the likes of Adam Johnson and Ricky Alvarez. Whether they can exploit it or not is another matter.
Will Poyet stick with a 4-4-2, though, in going for United’s jugular?
There has to be a suspicion that Sunderland will be more conservative in their starting line-up.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see an extra midfielder included – either Jordi Gomez or Liam Bridcutt – or Connor Wickham replace Danny Graham; offering a striking option that can operate from a wide role.
Yet playing the big boys seems to suit Sunderland and they showed at Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City that they can cause jitters in the opposition ranks when going forward.
Will that be sufficient for Sunderland to pull off a result which sees the away end propelled into delirium for the third Old Trafford trip in a row?
Well, it would be timely for Sunderland to upset the odds; something they haven’t done sufficiently this season.
A three-point buffer with the relegation zone is not cause for panic stations, yet with two rounds of Premier League games squeezed into the space of three or four days, the complexion of the dogfight can be quickly turned on its head.
Sunderland need to put something on the board, preferably a win, from successive games on the road, with a trip to bogey side Hull following rapidly on Tuesday night.
Do that, and they can fancy their chances for the visit of a confidence-drained Aston Villa side in a fortnight.
But two defeats will leave Sunderland either falling into the drop zone for the first time this season or teetering very precariously on the edge.
Another Old Trafford coupon-buster would come in handy.
Verdict: Home win