Most people’s post mortem of a largely awful afternoon at Everton concluded that, while they looked none-too-shabby going forward, Sunderland had got it all wrong at the back before they had even taken to the pitch.
The team had only conceded one goal in the two games previous to Everton; a goal that should have been disallowed. It was therefore strange that the defensive system was changed to one that had never worked in the past; albeit under a different manager.
For the Southampton match, the clearly more effective set-up at the back was re-employed using probably the best available four players.
Indeed, the only goal was a penalty following an absurd challenge by a midfielder. But on Saturday there was a variation of bewildering tactics and team selection; this time up front.
It was as though having shot themselves in the foot against Everton, they had decided to shoot themselves in the other foot against Southampton.
The team had scored five goals in the two games previous to Southampton. Jermain Defoe had scored one of them, made a crucial difference when he came on as substitute in the 3-0 win over Newcastle and had complemented Steven Fletcher at Goodison.
For the fun of debating, we might also allude to the 260 career goals he has rattled in.
The befuddlement caused by his demotion to the bench on Saturday, was then surpassed by the substitution immediately after Southampton had taken the lead, when Sunderland replaced Fletcher with Jack Rodwell.
They decided that for five minutes until Defoe was eventually introduced, they should play without a striker – at a goal down.
We are also left to wonder why the anonymous Rodwell was used instead of the more dangerous (albeit unpredictable) Jeremain Lens, what Ola Toivonen and Jordi Gómez had done to merit reselection to the starting XI; or what Sebastian Larsson had done to not even be put on the bench.
Toivonen and Gómez are skilful footballers, but a team in Sunderland’s position cannot afford the luxury of one, let alone two players who are unable or unwilling to bite ankles for the cause.
Then there was the continual use of the high ball up to the unfortunate Fletcher, who was expected to win headers against Virgil van Dijk; a six-foot four-inch centre-back. When this had failed to work for the 27th time, it was not overly cynical to suggest that it probably wouldn’t work the 28th time either.
Crude but effective is fine; but this was just crude – and unnecessary. Nor do we know what was expected of Fletcher in the unlikely event of his winning the ball, because he was working in less-than-splendid isolation. When Sunderland say they will use a lone striker they really, really mean it.
Overlooking all of that; Sunderland were a really well functioning unit on Saturday; a veritable Swiss watch of a team.
In fairness, it has to be said that Sam Allardyce needs to see what sort of players he has to work with.
The only way to do this properly is to watch them in the Premier League, not just on the training ground. Therefore it was reasonable, for example, to give Duncan Watmore a first full 90 minutes.
Allardyce is clearly not a mug and despite the lazily bestowed reputation, he will only instruct the long ball when it works. So we can expect to see rather less of it after Southampton. Nor can he be blamed for the trepidation or plain bad play of individual players.
The good news is that if it’s true that we find out more from our mistakes than our triumphs, then Sunderland can’t have an awful lot to learn after their last two fixtures.
Keep the faith; if you happen to have any left to keep.