Planning for his first full season in charge, Martin O'Neill dug deep into his managerial rucksack and brought forth the blueprint - or so was thought after the first game of pre-season tournament the Peace Cup. Without Stephane Sessegnon, O'Neill turned to what served him so well at Aston Villa; bodies in midfield, pacy, high-up-the-pitch attacking outlets and one focal point around which exists.
As the Premier League season began, the Benin playmaker would spearhead the blueprint. Then, as a genuine focal point was signed and shined, Sunderland reverted to last season's dynamic; a 4-4-1-1 with Sessegnon given license to roam in his maverick way. The problem is that Sessegnon has not replicated his dazzling form from the previous year, be through his own faults and his team-mates unable to find him in favourable attacking areas.
When Sessegnon was dropped last week, Sunderland deployed a 4-5-1 system that was sure to become 4-3-3 when breaking to attack. Yet there was little different. Sunderland still frustrated - both the opposition and its fans. Their wide players again flattered to deceive. Implementing different formations and styles throughout the season is not unusual, but a return to 4-4-2 on Tuesday night was. Not only because, as a system, it is so simply countered, but that Sunderland do not possess the proverbial eyes to match Lee Cattermole's legs in midfield, further stifling the creativity which has been at an absolute premium so far as space is shut down by the opposition's extra man in the centre.
The manager, both this season and last, has indicated that the squad is more suited to the formation that defined his tenure at Villa Park. Fraizer Campbell is far more wide-forward than centre-forward when used from the bench, and then there is Connor Wickham's early 2011 form as the left-sided part of a front three. At present, only Steven Fletcher and Louis Saha - and Sessegnon at a push - are deemed genuine central attacking options. The quandary is just where Sessegnon fits, but the same could also be said of Adam Johnson and James McClean thus far. Whilst the Premier League would be against printing question marks on the back of their shirts, an answer to Sunderland's struggles is yet to be found.
Confidence was again the buzzword following the Capital One Cup exit, its extension to the manager a question gaining legitimacy as weeks pass without attacking improvement. Part of developing a squad - something that O'Neill strives to improve - is having to make decisions in key positions. The backdrop is that if a talented player is not on the field, a game-changing option is on the bench, ready to be called upon. Sunderland have been without that luxury, not only because a number of players are out of form but because O'Neill has denied himself the opportunity by shoe-horning his better players into the team.
But confidence is not the only issue - carelessness is just as potent in holding Sunderland back at present. Ahead of the visit of Aston Villa - a game from which both teams are in need of a win - the Black Cats' problems are all-too apparent. Sessegnon, along with McClean, is the most dispossessed player on average in the league. He is runner-up to Fletcher in the running for top turnovers. The lowest shots-per-game stat is a simple correlation; how are Sunderland going to shoot if they are so negligent in possession? The Villains managed to extend their cup run in midweek and in arriving at this game may muster some confidence from that - despite their poor league form. If confidence still eludes Sunderland, conviction must not stray from O'Neill as he faces his former club.