The 2015-16 campaign has so far been one to forget for Sunderland fans.
In the summer, there had been fresh optimism for a brighter future after Dick Advocaat confirmed he would be returning, with hopes for several high quality signings.
Sunderland did spend big on two players, splashing £13m on Jeremain Lens and £10m Fabio Borini but more ‘quality’ additions were needed and didn’t arrive.
A poor start under Advocaat led to the Dutchman resigning, adding that he didn’t feel the squad was “good enough” to stay up,
Sam Allardyce was tasked with proving him wrong but after three defeats in his opening four games, there has been little to suggest the situation can be turned around.
So, with the Premier League taking a breather for the third international break of the season, what big challenges face Allardyce & Co over the next fortnight?
1) Find a system that works and decide on the strongest line-up.
Ideally, this would have been solved in pre-season. But as Sunderland fans are well aware, we don’t live in a perfect world.
Advocaat never quite managed it during his time in charge, chopping and changing personnel and Allardyce has continued in the same vein as he hopes to stumble across a winning formula.
In fairness to Allardyce, he has been in charge for just four weeks but he will know by now which players have the fight for a relegation scrap. And who doesn’t.
The 3-5-2 system deployed at Everton backfired, Sunderland were impressive going forward but woeful at the back.
Against Southampton, the flat-back four looked much more solid but any attacking fluency was sacrificed and when Southampton took the lead, Sunderland never looked like scoring.
Allardyce will have earned his corn if he can find a system that gets the best out of Sunderland in defence and attack – and deciding on a settled side might help.
Sunderland have not named an unchanged starting line-up since May 2014. Frightening.
2) Get the best out of Jermain Defoe and Steven Fletcher.
How do you solve a problem like Defoe and Fletcher? It could be a hit television show judged by Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn’t it?
Somehow, Allardyce must find a way of getting Defoe in the side on a regular basis alongside Fletcher without leaving Sunderland woefully exposed at the back.
The pair showed at Goodison Park how effectively they can link-up, if they are given the chance.
Both scored in the 6-2 defeat and played well, yet Defoe was back on bench-warming duties for the visit of Southampton.
A proven goalscorer and the club’s leading marksman in all competitions this season. Sunderland need Defoe in the side.
3) Prepare for the January sales.
A big challenge facing Allardyce and the club’s hierarchy over the coming weeks is preparing for the January sales.
Sunderland need reinforcements in the New Year and will get them, provided they are still within touching distance when the transfer window opens.
Allardyce has already targeted French left-back Arthur Masuaku from Olympiakos as a potential target.
Whoever comes in needs to instantly improve not only the squad but the starting line-up.
And Sunderland need to be ready to swoop as soon as the window opens. This fortnight will play a key part in those preparations.
4) Get the players back firing on all cylinders.
Sunderland striker Fabio Borini said it himself, the international break is an opportunity for the players “to get back in shape and get fitter.”
Sunderland have struggled with several knocks since Allardyce took charge, with Borini, Ola Toivonen, Younes Kaboul and John O’Shea among those picking up little niggles.
The break, for those first team players not representing their countries, is a chance to boost their sharpness ahead of Crystal Palace away a week on Monday.
5) Tie Duncan Watmore down to a new long-term contract.
This will be high on the club’s agenda, tying highly-rated prospect Watmore down to a new deal.
Allardyce wants him to stay, the fans certainly do and the Echo understands Watmore is eager to remain at the Stadium of Light too.
Negotiations are expected to take place during this break and it is imperative the Black Cats secure the services of the England Under-21 international.
Allardyce recently told us: “Duncan Watmore is one we’d like to resolve as soon as possible.”
6) Finalise Liam Bridcutt’s loan move.
Will he? Won’t he? Bridcutt, not involved in Allardyce’s first team plans, is wanted by Leeds United on a two-month loan deal. But the move has turned into a mini-saga with what would appear to be a straightforward deal not yet complete.
The 26-year-old is understood to be keen to move to Elland Road, despite interest from several other Championship outfits, yet the delay is thought to have been caused by the uncertainty over Massimo Cellino’s ownership of Leeds. Cardiff City and Reading are also keen. It is best for all parties that a deal is finalised sooner, rather than later.