GOOD managers build from the back and that’s exactly what Gus Poyet has done since he arrived at Sunderland back in October.
The Uruguayan said improving the Black Cats’ leaky defence would be his first priority – a conviction which hardened in the wake of Sunderland’s 4-0 collapse at Swansea in his first game in charge.
He has managed it primarily on the back of the reunion of Wes Brown and John O’Shea in central defence ahead of an impressive Vito Mannone, aided by Lee Cattermole’s defensive cover.
So impressive has the improvement been that poor goals conceded are now noteworthy rather than to be wearily expected – Cattermole’s slip against Villa; the poor defending for Fulham’s goal at the weekend.
But that should belie the fact that Sunderland have conceded just seven goals in the last nine games – of which one has been lost. There have been three clean sheets in that sequence too.
It’s something new boss Fulham boss Rene Meulensteen needs to take note of, if his first opportunity in Premier League management is not to be his last.
Fulham went into their game against Sunderland with already the leakiest defence in the division and went on to show exactly why they have conceded so many in such a short space of time.
Key to their woes is the fact that David Stockdale is a keeper as poor for them as Kelvin Davis was for a bygone Sunderland side.
Full-backs John Arne Riise and Sascha Riether are eye-catching in attack but are too often caught out of position in defence, while centre-half pairing Philippe Senderos and Fernando Amorebieta inspire no confidence.
Tough tacklers Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker can offer protection in midfield, but too often on Saturday found themselves outnumbered by a Sunderland four, with defensive midfielder Cattermole pushing up to reinforce his team-mates.
Fulham’s weakness in defence saw too many set-pieces conceded and Sunderland, who have proved to be specialists at them this season, scored twice from Adam Johnson’s brilliant work.
Johnson was the difference between the two sides – scoring three and setting up a fourth – but Sunderland used him intelligently.
Recognising that defensive and covering work is simply not his strength, the rest of his team-mates worked hard to ensure that he always received the ball in the final third of the pitch where he could concentrate his energies on getting into the box or attacking the full back – something he did to great effect.
Poyet, having improved his defence, has moved on to his midfield and there are signs that he has found the system to bring out the most of the individual talents at his disposal.
Johnson – Sunderland’s match-changer in three consecutive victories – is the most obvious example of that.
But Cattermole has flourished in the defensive midfield role which does not overtax him in terms of miles covered; Fabio Borini and Emanuele Giaccherini have notably improved now they are settling into an established system and Ki Sung-Yueng has been persuaded to embrace a more forward midfield role and make it work.
Now that defence and midfield have been organised and galvanised, Poyet has the last part of the puzzle to solve – a failure to launch in attack.
Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore are having woeful campaigns compared to last season – Fletcher looks a shadow of the £12m signing who first so excited Sunderland fans, while Altidore has managed to pull off the twin achievement of settling in and going backward.
Both were their side’s weak links at the weekend and Poyet badly needs to work out a way to get the two back into top form.
He will not worry too much while the team is scoring goals and earning points. But sooner or later a team whose strikers do not score, finds itself in trouble.
Altidore has scored only one league goal this season. Fletcher has three, but only one in his last 14 appearances. Neither looks happy.
Ultimately, Poyet’s solution might be bring in new signings up front. For the moment, he has to soldier on with what he has, which means fielding a team where the lone striker up front is asked to bear a heavy and often thankless load.
It is something which the manager will give a great deal of thought to, but, after Saturday’s result, it’s worth pointing out that he has less to worry about than his opposite number at Craven Cottage.
Fulham have conceded more goals, lost more games and have fewer clean sheets than any other side in the Premier League.
And just as troubling is the fact they are losing their way at just the wrong time of the season and with some very difficult fixtures ahead of them in the near future.
This is good news for Poyet, who must feel that he’s really on to something at Sunderland on the evidence of a game in which his players held their nerves and took their chances.
Everything is coming together for him at Sunderland it would seem. Everything but the strikers.