Sam Allardyce has taken a contented pride over Sunderland’s injury record during the physical demands of the winter schedule.
While neighbours Newcastle United have had up to a dozen first-teamers on the treatment table, Sunderland have been relatively unscathed by absentees, even if there has been little profit in terms of points from a near full-strength squad.
On the eve of Saturday’s visit to Liverpool, Seb Larsson looked like being the only long-term absentee listed on Allardyce’s squad list. Even then, the Swedish international should – by rights – be available again now after the original five-week lay-off has doubled.
In the space of 24 hours though, Sunderland’s injury list lengthened significantly.
On Friday morning in training, the returning Younes Kaboul suffered a set-back, to join Jeremain Lens in missing the trip to Anfield.
Fabio Borini woke up on Saturday morning under the weather and pulled out of the clash with his former club due to illness, Duncan Watmore rolled his ankle in the first half and then Jermain Defoe worryingly clutched his hamstring after netting Sunderland’s last-gasp equaliser.
Defoe played down the severity of the problem afterwards, but while he’s far more likely to be involved against Manchester United this weekend than Watmore, the 33-year-old is a concern.
As Allardyce admitted afterwards, the list of absentees has suddenly become “big trouble”.
But the Sunderland boss is adamant that the squad he inherited four months ago is in much better shape to avoid relegation.
“We’ve increased their level of fitness by 15-20 per cent since I’ve been here.
“We’ve now given them the opportunity physically to produce a performance which they weren’t capable of when I first arrived.
“Now it’s down to the technique and quality.
“We’ve had to get the players to a different level of fitness, so they’ve got more physical capability of achieving a result.
“I remember when I first got here, upping the level of training and thinking ‘Oh my God, are we doing the right thing?’.
“Three players got injured in the Newcastle game – John O’Shea and Ola (Toivonen) and then Younes Kaboul at the end with a groin.
“I wondered if we were making the changes too quickly.
“But we were brave enough to continue and through the Christmas period, while the results haven’t gone as well as we’d wanted, we’ve had players available.”
Perhaps that superior conditioning was a factor for Sunderland salvaging a point in the final 10 minutes at Anfield. Certainly, earlier in the season, the Black Cats seemed to be running on empty as games entered the final stages.
But Allardyce reiterates that however fit Sunderland are, they still need to produce some quality when in possession.
That wasn’t apparent for much of Saturday’s game, with Sunderland pinned back in their own half, unable to retain possession and leaving Defoe completely isolated up front.
Allardyce insists his game-plan was NOT for Sunderland to be so defensive-minded, yet the encounter developed in that fashion due to their sloppiness on the ball.
He said: “The possession was poor.
“We didn’t sit back on purpose. We sat back because we kept giving the ball to them.
“If we didn’t pass the ball to them, then we kicked it out of play.
“These players are better than that, but maybe the fear and not getting a result after Man City put us on the back foot a little bit.”