How a settled Lee Johnson Sunderland XI has come together and the key questions that still remain
Lee Johnson is looking ahead to the run-in with optimism.
He has been clear that there is much more to come from his side but one major positive is that is again closing on an almost fully-fit squad.
While that gives him the opportunity to go 'horses for courses' in his selection, particularly given the demands of a hectic fixture schedule, Sunderland s recent form reflects his
Sunderland XI becoming increasingly settled.
In this week's column, we track that development and look at the key questions that still remain...
Lee Burge's contributions have been absolutely critical in Sunderland's consistent run of results.
He has not been called upon regularly within games but in just about every contest, there has been one key save at an important moment.
Depending on your perspective, dropping Burge for that Shrewsbury defeat was an either an error on Johnson's part, or a move that got the eventual response required.
Either way, consistency between the sticks has been a key factor in the journey from play-off hopefuls to genuine automatic promotion contenders.
Johnson has played a back five when injuries have demanded but his clear preference is for a back four.
To that end he has been bolstered by the strong form of both Conor McLaughlin and Max Power when playing at right back.
McLaughlin has shown the kind of form that led to him being named in the team of the season while at Fleetwood, while Power's leadership in whatever position necessary has been at the heart of this good run.
On the other flank, Denver Hume's return provides strong competition and a potential attacking boost.
It's at the heart of defence where perhaps the biggest question for Johnson moving forward will be.
Bailey Wright is nearing a return (though this weekend could come too soon) and his experience will be welcomed in the heat of a promotion battle. Nevertheless, Dion Sanderson and Luke O'Nien have been outstanding of late.
Both are deceptively quick and most importantly, both have brought some added composure in bringing the ball out from the back. That's been a real weapon for Sunderland against the opposition press.
The conundrum for Johnson is whether the added physicality of his more established options is more important, and whether O'Nien will offer more if given the chance to prove his dynamism in midfield.
Sunderland's 2-0 win over Portsmouth marked a major step in their progression under Johnson but there were also two injuries that would have a significant medium-term impact.
Aiden O'Brien and Jordan Jones would both pick up minor muscle issues, and in the case of the latter it came just as his loan spell was exploding into life.
His gametime had been relatively limited up until that point, partly for obvious match fitness reasons and partly for tactical reasons.
After his quite spectacular cameo at Crewe Alexandra, Johnson conceded that Jones had suffered from his concerns around playing both the Rangers loanee and Aiden McGeady in the same team.
When he had last done so, Sunderland lacked balance in that 2-1 defeat to Shrewsbury Town.
Jones is clearly at his most potent from the left wing but that superb performance at Fratton Park showed that he could also be effective on the right and even more importantly, that the pair could both play in a side and not leave it overly exposed.
Though generally happier through the middle, Lynden Gooch can clearly perform a similar role and Jack Diamond has been hugely effective from the bench.
The 21-year-old is a superb ball carrier, the Papa John's Trophy final underlining his value as the winger constantly relieved pressure by drawing fouls and driving deep into the Tranmere half. A superb performance in the U23s on Monday afternoon highlighted his threat and it's here that Johnson has perhaps made the biggest impact.
He spoke after his first game in charge about a lack of pace and an inability to stretch the game. Through promoting from within, changing the shape and some smart recruitment, he has gone a long way to addressing that.
Carl Winchester's excellent recent form has allayed concerns about Sunderland being overrun when they play through a midfield two, with Josh Scowen's industry making him a vital part of Johnson's plans.
Johnson knows he has the depth to introduce an extra midfielder when needed (particularly when McLaughlin's return allows Power to move back upfield), as he did on Saturday in the closing stages.
That will become more of a debate when Wright returns to fitness, given how well Luke O'Nien did as part of a midfield three against Doncaster Rovers at the start of this run.
That emphatic win remains one of the best performances of his tenure but injuries have prevented him fielding a similar XI since then. In the weeks ahead, that could change.
The importance of O'Brien has become increasingly clear in recent weeks and Saturday's win over Bristol Rovers simply underlined it.
Though always flexible and pragmatic, Johnson's preference is clearly to play with four forwards wherever possible and O'Brien is crucial to maintaining the balance of the side.
He presses aggressively, is happy to run the channels but is equally comfortable playing with his back to goal.
Johnson's ambitious 4-2-2-2 system (though considerably less open now than when first implemented) will always leave Sunderland at risk in transition but O'Brien's industry makes it an effective option.
Ross Stewart's return to fitness is timely as his cameo at the Memorial Ground shows he is capable of performing a similar role.
He is very good in the air but is clearly comfortable both pressing and running beyond the main striker.
Charlie Wyke looks far more effective when one of the two is able to help battle often physical defences.
There are plenty of options to mix it up, too, with Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch both comfortable operating as a number ten.