GENUINE selection dilemmas have been thin on the ground for Gus Poyet.
The changes to the starting line-up during the former Brighton manager’s Sunderland tenure have centred more on desperately searching for a winning combination, rather than boasting any weighty strength in depth.
But in two positions, Poyet does have genuine puzzles.
Up front, Poyet’s efforts to squeeze Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher into the same XI have proved unconvincing.
Pairing the two frontmen against Spurs didn’t pay off and no matter Poyet’s words beforehand, Saturday’s goalless draw at West Ham was another indication that it has to be one or the other.
Altidore spurned the most clear-cut of Sunderland’s opportunities at Upton Park, yet the Black Cats have looked a more cohesive unit this season when they have had two players buzzing about behind a lone frontman.
Given the American’s decent overall display compared to the inconsequential offering from Fletcher’s cameo in the final 20 minutes, the £6million summer signing remains in pole position to be the first-choice striker for this weekend’s crunch clash against Norwich, whatever the squad rotation against Chelsea in tomorrow night’s Capital One Cup tie.
But Poyet might just have landed upon a solution to the other headache of squeezing two positional rivals into the same side.
Lee Cattermole’s role in Poyet’s plans looked under scrutiny after being confined to the bench during his first two games back following suspension, while Ki Sung-Yueng thrived in the holding spot in front of the back four.
While Cattermole’s hunger and appetite for the battle is a clear asset in a relegation scrap, did the former captain really fit into Poyet’s possession-based philosophy?
With all of Sunderland’s play going through the South Korean, it seemed madness to move the on-loan Swansea man from that position.
Yet the one thing which came away from another frustrating afternoon away from home, was that Cattermole and Ki can be harnessed together.
Sunderland were equally as responsible in possession as they have been in any of the recent games under Poyet’s stewardship.
Cattermole kept his composure patrolling in front of the back four – a necessary trait when up against the twinkle-toes of Ravel Morrison – and performed Ki’s previous task of keeping the play ticking over.
The quality of the former Middlesbrough man’s distribution is too often easily overlooked. The disciplinary indiscretions overshadow any more reasoned analysis of his game.
But Cattermole, whose pass completion percentage reached the 90 per cent mark, can deliver with the ball at his feet and he wasn’t afraid to look for the cutting pass, rather than just relying on going sideways.
It allowed Ki licence to go forward and the 24-year-old proved as equally adept in that role as he was in the deeper position.
Ki persistently plundered the space down the left, linked up well with the overlapping Phil Bardsley and was happy to get down the channels and get some crosses into the area himself.
Had Jussi Jaaskelainen not produced a deceptively good save, Ki would have nudged Sunderland ahead in the second half, just as they were beginning to tire.
But that goal eluded Sunderland and that is the clear missing ingredient in Poyet’s midfield mix.
Craig Gardner remains the only central midfielder at the club who has found the net in the Premier League this season.
There was another mammoth effort from Seb Larsson, and the Swede’s form has undoubtedly improved under Poyet’s stewardship.
But Larsson has not found the net in the top flight since Sunderland’s victory over West Ham in January and given that he was the most offensive of the midfield trio, the Black Cats need a greater goal threat.
One scribe in the press box piped up on Saturday afternoon that Sunderland would be alright with a goal-scoring midfielder in the mould of Poyet himself. It was an astute observation.
For all Sunderland’s domination – particularly in the first half – they lack that element of sheer quality in the opposition penalty area.
Not that West Ham’s attacking potency was any better. In fact, it was far worse.
Morrison is undoubtedly a huge talent and is devilishly difficult to contain.
But the ex-Manchester United midfielder is still very much a work in progress. Too many times he keeps possession when he needs to give it and ends up getting caught on the ball.
He was the only bright spark going forwards for Sam Allardyce’s side though.
Modibo Maiga offered a powder-puff threat as the lone frontman and was comfortable fare for John O’Shea and Wes Brown. Newcastle United undoubtedly had a lucky escape with that former target.
West Ham’s troubles offer Sunderland hope if they can get back among the pack of teams scrambling to remain in the Premier League.
But that remains a big if.
Sunderland won’t get a better opportunity to record a first away victory of the campaign, nor a first goal on the road since August.
While West Ham were stricken by nerves and a lack of confidence, Sunderland were bright, full of movement and cohesive, despite their inability to take their opportunities.
But, as at Aston Villa a fortnight earlier, all the positivity of the performance counted for little when Sunderland couldn’t get over the winning line.
That’s the headache for Poyet.
However much Sunderland have improved under his stewardship, and however much they didn’t look a bottom-of-the-table side at Upton Park, they still need wins.
Only victories – preferably back-to-back ones – offer any exchangeable currency for Sunderland at the moment.
Undoubtedly, they are due a break. Repeatedly on Saturday, the ball just evaded a waiting yellow shirt or a shot was deflected the wrong side of the post.
But a draw guaranteed that Sunderland will be bottom at Christmas. Only once before in the Premier League era has that ended well.