IN EIGHT weeks at the helm, Gus Poyet has shown himself to be a very different character to Paolo Di Canio.
As players, they were two of the most successful overseas imports in Premier League history; as managers, they both impressed in the Football League before leaving their former clubs in acrimonious circumstances.
But that’s where the similarities tend to end.
Rather than the wild predictions of greatness from Di Canio, Poyet has concentrated on a common sense, intelligent and engaging approach, while actually forming a long-term plan for this club.
Yet they agree on one player lying in Sunderland’s ranks.
When Sunderland splashed out almost £7million on Emanuele Giaccherini during the summer, Di Canio was almost salivating with excitement over what the ex-Juventus man could achieve in the Premier League.
Similarly, last week Poyet didn’t attempt to play down Giaccherini’s importance; hailing him as the creator who could perform the wizardry which Gianfranco Zola conjured up during the Uruguayan’s playing days at Chelsea.
Far from a moment of Zola-esque majesty though, Giaccherini somehow managed a moment of pure infamy at Villa Park on Saturday.
The ball sat up on him and at 5ft 6in, the Italian international struggled to get his body over it.
But it was still a horrifying miss, particularly given the position Sunderland find themselves in.
Giaccherini spent the closing seconds of the first half with his head in his hands and wandered around the dressing room at full-time muttering “sorry” to his team-mates. He realised what a shocker it was and doubtless the nightmares will continue for several more days.
Setting aside the spurned sitter though, can Giaccherini’s undoubted talented be harnessed into tangible rewards for Sunderland?
Again on Saturday, it was a mixed bag for the 28-year-old.
Giaccherini was clearly rattled by his miss and in the second half strained every sinew to make amends; linking up well down the left with the returning Andrea Dossena, who offered a far better balance to the line-up.
The cross onto the head of Fabio Borini was a pinpoint delivery and had Sunderland boasted a splash of fortune, would have found the net.
But there were wasted opportunities too.
Just before that Borini chance, Giaccherini had got away from Leandro Bacuna down the left-hand side of Villa’s area with a sublime turn.
From the by-line, Giaccherini had two luminous yellow shirts to spot in the Villa area, yet delivered his pull-back straight into the arms of Brad Guzan.
It was a similarly mixed afternoon for fellow Italian Borini after he was preferred to Adam Johnson.
The on-loan Liverpool man, who alternated flanks with Giaccherini, grew into the game as it wore on and deserved to net his second Sunderland goal after a textbook glancing header.
But while Borini offers a tireless contribution up and down the touchline, he can fall into the Johnson trap of drifting into anonymity.
Poyet clearly believes in the 22-year-old though and the former Chelsea trainee does need a run in the side to show what he is truly capable of offering.
Yet those attacking positions are the remaining piece of the jigsaw for Poyet to solve.
Defensively, Sunderland are an entirely different beast to the side which shipped goals with such alarming recklessness over the opening 10 Premier League games.
Wes Brown and John O’Shea, helped by the no-nonsense reliability of keeper Vito Mannone, were imperious at the heart of Sunderland’s defence in handling the subdued Christian Benteke, who was a shadow of the player that netted a hat-trick in last season’s corresponding fixture.
Overall though, the Black Cats, as a whole, are far better organised than they were under Di Canio, with the pace of Gabby Agbonlahor and the industry of Andreas Weimann given little opportunity to prosper.
In midfield too, Poyet has landed upon a successful system with three men in the middle of the park.
Ki Sung-Yeung was almost punished by Weimann when he dwelt too long on the ball in the first half, but all of Sunderland’s play goes through the South Korean.
The returning Lee Cattermole, an unused substitute at Villa Park, faces a daunting challenge to remove the on-loan Swansea man from that crucial holding role.
Surprise inclusion Craig Gardner made some intelligent runs in behind Steven Fletcher, while Seb Larsson has been completely rejuvenated under Poyet.
As against Manchester City in Sunderland’s last home game, Larsson was everywhere and matched that work-rate with reliable distribution.
But the spotlight is on those players occupying positions in the final third, as Sunderland drew a blank for the sixth time in 13 games.
None can be assured of their place in the starting XI.
Realistically, Poyet has five players to pick from – Fletcher, Borini, Giaccherini, Johnson and Jozy Altidore.
He must decide whether to continue using three of them or revert to a more orthodox front two.
Given the solidity that a five-man midfield has given Sunderland, he will be wary of the latter option, but Poyet needs to find a solution to the Black Cats’ goalscoring woes, even if he couldn’t legislate for Giaccherini’s miss on Saturday.
A goalless draw stopped the rot away from home and provided a confidence boost ahead of this week’s devilishly difficult Stadium of Light clashes with Chelsea and Spurs.
But Sunderland are desperate for goals.
Poyet’s side meet Villa again on New Year’s Day, by which time they realistically need to have registered a couple of wins from the remaining six Premier League outings in 2013.
To achieve those victories, Sunderland’s meagre goal return needs a dramatic turnaround.