“MAYBE we should play Newcastle every week!” quipped Gus Poyet in a moment of light relief during a distinctly downbeat post-mortem on Saturday.
The derby has become one of the few moments during the season when Sunderland genuinely convince and eradicate the shortcomings which infuriatingly continue to rear their head at regular intervals.
It is the return of just one point from the four league games since that festive triumph on Tyneside which is the real cause for concern though.
When asked about it on Saturday, Poyet didn’t really offer any theory for Sunderland’s post-derby slump, or believe it was a factor in the depths they reached in the first half against Liverpool.
But since a fourth successive victory over Newcastle on December 21, Sunderland have regressed.
What should have been the start of the Wearsiders’ promise and doggedness finally being converted into victories, has proved to be the falsest of dawns.
It’s why that Boxing Day defeat to an ailing Hull City side was so costly.
That was the chance for Sunderland to gain some real traction away from danger. Poyet knew it too. He realised it was up there as the biggest game in the Black Cats’ season.
But since fluffing that open goal, Sunderland have lost the knack of being hard to beat and now find themselves in the thick of the relegation dogfight – only a precarious point buffer from the bottom three, with Poyet’s men boasting the lowest number of wins in the top flight, just three in 21 matches.
While there has been a genuine confidence in the Sunderland dressing room that the Black Cats will not face such a nail-biter as last season, the league position doesn’t exactly back that up.
More alarming was the performance against Liverpool; pedestrian, sloppy and bereft of attacking ideas. In the first half particularly, it was starkly reminiscent of some of those dire displays in the final days of Martin O’Neill’s tenure.
Inevitably, after seeing Sunderland’s run of just one home Premier League win all season continue (and only seven Stadium of Light top-flight wins in two years) patience is being tested among supporters.
Ironically though, it is patience that Poyet is seeking; patience on the terraces to see a patient, possession-based strategy reap rewards.
Poyet ideally wants to see Sunderland replicate the style and swagger shown by Swansea over recent seasons, and become a side who pose a stern challenge regardless of the opposition or playing home or away.
It’s the right idea.
Short of a Middle Eastern takeover, Sunderland are never going to be able to match the spending power of the Premier League’s big boys, so need to be able compete in a different manner.
Football has changed since the Peter Reid era too, when a little and a large combination at the peak of an orthodox 4-4-2 was a match for any team in the land.
The majority of supporters accept that. Let’s face it, the Quinn/Phillips combination was arguably the best strike partnership in Sunderland’s history. It’s tough – if nigh-on impossible – to find another one so good.
However, what Swansea have done so effectively is accompany their possession-based philosophy with attacking penetration
That has been missing from Sunderland’s game for the overwhelming majority of this season.
It was present in the derby, but that has not proved to be a sign of things to come. That was when Sunderland were playing on the counter-attack too, rather than when the onus was on them to break the opposition down at home.
Undoubtedly, Poyet needs some help in the transfer market to bolster his attacking ranks.
A return of 18 goals in 21 league outings – now the second worst in the division – is no accident.
As was the case before a ball was kicked this season, Sunderland lack pace and the ability to regularly get in behind the opposition.
But it still doesn’t excuse the absence of threat Sunderland showed against Liverpool.
When relegation rivals Burnley, QPR, Hull, Crystal Palace, West Brom and Leicester are all managing to win on their own turf, Sunderland are struggling to even muster a shot.
Other than Adam Johnson’s long-ranger which cracked against the under of the Liverpool crossbar, Sunderland failed to produce a meaningful effort on goal.
In the first half particularly, Poyet’s side simply got bogged down with passing sideways and backwards, while they sat so deep that it was virtually impossible to threaten.
Johnson, the one Sunderland player who looked dangerous, and Emanuele Giaccherini were tasked with tracking back the wing-backs, while Santiago Vergini and Patrick van Aanholt stuck to Steven Gerrard and Philippe Coutinho.
But all that did was leave Sunderland with a virtual six-man defence.
It wasn’t until the daft dismissal of Liam Bridcutt early in the second half, that Giaccherini and Johnson were forced to take a chance and abandon their man-to-man marking brief.
On the rare occasions when Sunderland did break, the red and white shirts were so far apart that Liverpool comfortably mopped it up.
And if there was a game when a spot of old-fashioned pressing and strong challenging could have reaped dividends, then this was it.
AFC Wimbledon, in the FA Cup third round, had shown five days earlier that Liverpool were vulnerable to the rough stuff.
In fairness, Liverpool were far more impressive than they were in the goalless draw against Sunderland at Anfield last month, particularly in the first half, with £20million summer signing Lazar Markovic finally starting to look a player and former Black Cats loanee Fabio Borini lively as the lone striker on his return to the Stadium of Light.
But until the last minute, Sunderland didn’t even put anyone on the toes of confidence-drained Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet from a set piece.
Even if Poyet wants to stick to his principles by continuing on the journey to implement his philosophy, Sunderland weren’t technically proficient enough to worry Liverpool.
Rather than crisp, incisive passing, too many in Sunderland’s ranks just looked leggy, sluggish and careless.
Vergini and Jordi Gomez, in particular, were way off.
It was a surprise anyway that Vergini started ahead of Billy Jones, given he had been struggling with fatigue and injury over the festive period.
But both the Argentine and Gomez look like they need a rest.
With Jones available, and Jack Rodwell back in training today, there is the opportunity to do just that at Tottenham this coming weekend.
Fresh legs and minds are needed to get Sunderland back to the dogged resiliency they had shown up to and including the derby.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini, van Aanholt, O’Shea, Brown, Bridcutt, Larsson, Gomez, Johnson (Mandron 86), Giaccherini (Buckley 77), Wickham (Graham 77). Subs not used: Jones, Alvarez, Agnew, Mannone. Booked: Vergini (28), Bridcutt (35). Sent off: Bridcutt (49)
LIVERPOOL: Mignolet, Can, Skrtel, Sakho, Henderson, Moreno, Lucas, Gerrard (Lovren 46), Markovic, Coutinho, Borini (Balotelli 67). Subs not used: Ward, Enrique, Lambert, Manquillo, Rossiter. Booked: Borini (17), Coutinho (36), Henderson (54), Lovren (55)
Referee: Craig Pawson