Sunderland’s season starts on Saturday.
You might find that a strange sentiment given we’re already five games in but the turmoil of the past month means this is really the first game worthy of our critique.
The first two matches came too soon, mistakes were made; the second two offered evidence of improvement; our fifth game showed us where this team might be heading.
We matched Tottenham for long spells on Sunday, created a couple of fantastic opportunities for Jermain Defoe in particular and lost only because of a failure to maintain defensive focus when fatigue struck in the closing stages.
Not for us the brow beating and panic induced by a glimpse of the league table, we’ve been here before and it’s nothing to worry about.
With a bit of luck we can view our climb up the league in the coming weeks while enjoying the discomfort of others we pass on the way down, not mentioning any names of course.
Sure, we’ve had an awful start but the goal is still 40 points, nothing more than that at this stage: 38 points from 33 games remaining, or just over a point a game; easily attainable.
And there is plenty to be optimistic about.
Ola Toivonen started for the first time, so too Fabio Borini (for the second time), and Jordi Gomez was thrown straight back in after his injury. There is bound to be rustiness while these players – and the new boys Yann M’Vila and Jeremain Lens – find their feet.
The partnership of John O’Shea and Younes Kaboul is promising – despite the teasing of my Sky colleagues Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. They have attributes which can help each other’s game.
But we’ve seen enough to think there might be better to come.
Two things struck me about Dick Advocaat’s selection. First, how much the team has evolved in such a short time (only five of Sunday’s team started on that night at Arsenal in May); secondly, how the emphasis is now on what we do in possession rather than out of possession.
On that point, it seems particularly significant to me that Gomez was preferred to Lee Cattermole, Seb Larsson and Jack Rodwell.
Who knows if he will be a permanent fixture, but he is a classy player, very comfortable on the ball and able to dictate a passing game if he has enough physical protection alongside him: perhaps M’Vila is that man.
This is not to say that Advocaat is trying to emulate Gus Poyet’s passing philosophy: against Spurs, 20 per cent of Sunderland’s passes were still long balls.
Perhaps we are seeing the marriage of two strategies: going long into the channels for Defoe or up to Toivonen when opportunity presents; but playing through Gomez and the wide men when the opposition backs off.
Significantly, Gomez had Sunderland’s highest passing accuracy on Sunday at 86 per cent (incidentally, only Leicester average lower pass completion than Sunderland this season but average four more shots more per game: it’s not how long you hold the ball but what you do with it that counts).
Shots per game is a much more accurate reflection of a team’s performance even after just five matches – the three with the lowest figure in the Premier League are Stoke, Sunderland and Newcastle, also the bottom three in the table).
Larsson was a lion last season but has had some tough international games to deal with already this term. Rodwell has shown promise on occasions, but this is perhaps the wake up call Cattermole needs to ignite a bizarrely sluggish start.
So on we go to Bournemouth where the much talked about but not often seen Deandre Yedlin comes into the mix for a debut as well.
The Cherries are finding life tough in the Premier League. They carried with them the momentum of a brilliant season in the Championship, plundering 98 goals along the way, but a spectacular win at West Ham apart have taken just one point from their other four games.
Eddie Howe was busy in the transfer market but has so far largely kept faith in the players who delivered promotion; though two of his bigger signings Tyrone Mings and Max Gradel have already been lost to long term injuries.
They will see the visit of Sunderland as a perfect opportunity to land their first home win; but with a disruption week together on the training ground under Advocaat’s tutelage I’m backing Sunderland to kick off their season on the south coast.