While happy to talk up the quality of his returning players and his delight at having a multitude of attacking options available for arguably the first time since he took charge, Simon Grayson was eager not to present the returning Duncan Watmore, or any such player, as instant saviours of a flagging season.
That is fair, though there is no escaping the fact that few squads are ever fully fit and available. As Sunderland head into a month that features three winnable home fixtures, the Black Cats boss will know that the pressure is on to show his squad are on an upward curve and closer to finding consistency.
At the Stadium of Light he has experimented with a variety of systems, the results mixed. So where should he go tomorrow? His side have without question looked more comfortable in a 4-4-2, particularly against Alex Neil’s Preston, but is that the best fit for the players he currently has fit and firing?
Or should the improving match fitness of Grayson’s deadline day signings lead to a different approach in attack?
Phil Smith’s team (4-2-3-1)
The identity of Sunderland’s best goalkeeper is still not known. Robbin Ruiter has arguably been the most impressive of the two, certainly the most commanding of his area, but Jason Steele is the man in possession and the chopping and changing cannot be doing the team much good.
Steele was unfortunate to concede twice at Deepdale and after an improved defensive display, consistency in selection will likely be the way forward.
MATTHEWS - O’SHEA - BROWNING - OVIEDO
Sunderland will be wary of being hit on the counter-attack on their home turf, as has happened far too often this season. That makes Lamine Kone’s pace an attractive option
ahead of John O’Shea but what we have seen so far this season suggests his leadership and communication is needed. Generally QPR’s frontline is physical, rather than quick, and that should suit O’Shea.
Grayson will have to make a call on Oviedo’s fitness after his late arrival from international duty, but if available he is surely the best left-back option in a flat back four. On the other flank, Adam Matthews, who has not put a foot wrong defensively when played on his strongest side, is worth persisting with.
CATTERMOLE - NDONG
This is a partnership that has been criticised during the early part of the season, particularly after home defeats in which the Black Cats have lacked attacking invention. Should the pair play together at the Stadium of Light? When at their best, as on the opening night of the season, they have shown their ability to control the midfield and at Preston, both were back to something near their best.
Ndong was winning tackles all over the field and Cattermole looked far sharper in his movement and use of the ball. The two week rest will have done him good, and they remain Sunderland’s best central midfield options.
McMANAMAN - WILLIAMS - McGEADY
This selection would be harsh on George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch, who both took their opportunity against Preston. Honeyman in particular offers a defensive balance to the side that Grayson would be loathed to lose.
Picking McGeady and McManaman in the same side is a risk given their attacking instincts, and it certainly did not work at Portman Road, but it is high time for a side with pace and flair in the wide areas to start on home turf.
If fit Jonny Williams offers a creative presence in front of Cattermole and Ndong and his presence seems to encourage the team to play through the lines and look after possession better. Before Lewis Grabban’s injury, the football Sunderland played in this shape in the first half hour against Nottingham Forest was the best they have played this season.
The temptation will be to go with the impressive Duncan Watmore from the start but it makes sense to keep him on the bench. Sunderland need him for the season and caution is the best policy. He can also offer a surge of energy to the team and the crowd when brought on later in the game, something missing so often this season as the home team have fizzled out.
Lewis Grabban may be in the squad but is unlikely to be ready to start and Vaughan played well at Preston, winning more aerial battles than anyone on the pitch. Playing in the same side as McManaman and McGeady should improve his goalscoring threat.