In Paolo Di Canio's first game as Sunderland manager his team showed a much greater attacking spirit, at least in the first half, than had been the norm this season under Martin O'Neill. Connor Wickham, Stephane Sessegnon, Seb Larsson and Adam Johnson all pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back, and at times did indeed look like the front four of a 4-2-4; a formation Di Canio had discussed using earlier in the week. This strategy paid dividends as Wickham, Sessegnon and Johnson were all rewarded with more chances in one half than we have seen in several months. These chances were, of course, mostly wasted, but that they were created at all is a positive that the team can take forward into less trying fixtures than against the self-proclaimed "Champions of Europe" (they know what they are).
As well as the confidence this might give the team, fans can take confidence that Di Canio appears to be aware that attack is the only way Sunderland are going to avoid relegation this season. In the second half Sunderland sat a lot deeper and invited pressure onto them, much as was the case when Martin O'Neill was in charge, and I imagine many supporters were worried that Di Canio had decided, predictably fruitlessly, to just sit back and defend the lead his team had. However, in his post-match interviews Di Canio stressed that it was a lack of fitness that had made his side unable to keep up their heavy pressing during the second half, and not a defensive tactical approach from the manager.
That attack is the only way Sunderland will survive is shown by the teams around Sunderland in the relegation battle. At the bottom, and almost certainly relegated as they have been for months, Reading and Queens Park Rangers are often bereft of any form of attacking threat. Reading's only consistent threat on goal this season was Adam Le Fondre during his run of goal-scoring appearances off the bench, but that is not a reliable strategy for winning games, as has been shown since his goals dried up. Without Le Fondre scoring, Reading really do look absent any threat on goal at all, so it is not surprise that they are going back down to the Championship.
Queens Park Rangers can boast of a mildly impressive forward line, with Loic Remy, Bobby Zamora, Junior Hoilett and Adel Taraabt all probably worthy of a place in squads not fighting against impending relegation. However, Remy and Zamora have been kept out for much of the season through injury worries (and of course Remy only arrived in January), whereas Hoilett and Taraabt are to inconsistency what Alan Pardew is to smarmy. The bottom two, then, can both point to a lack of goals as the clearest reason why they are going down.
This is shown even more clearly when you examine the other sides in the bottom half of the table. Recent victories for Southampton and Newcastle seem to have assured both sides' Premier League survival, and this is in no small part down to their impressive attacks. Southampton's defence (which still regularly contains disaster zones such as Hooiveld and Fox, and not to mention occasional starts for Kelvin the Clown in goal) is arguably as weak as any currently in the league, yet their forwards are extremely impressive. Pocchetino's recent preferred three of Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Gaston Ramirez is an enviable and flexible group of attackers, and it is they, not the Saints' defence, that seem to have kept them up this season.
Newcastle's attack has, in fairness, been extremely inconsistent this season, with main man Demba Ba departing for pastures Bluer in January and last year's star striker Papiss Cisse struggling for much of the season. However recently with Yohan Cabaye's return to fitness, Moussa Sissoko's arrival and a period of decent goal-scoring form for Cisse the Mags look to have clawed their way out of the Premier League basement, and realistically need only perhaps a win and a few draws until they can plan comfortably for another season in the top flight.
The other teams firmly embroiled in the relegation battle at this stage are Sunderland, Wigan, Aston Villa, Stoke City and Norwich. Out of these five clubs, Aston Villa look to be the team with the best momentum and, unsurprisingly, are also the team with the most impressive attack. In Christian Benteke, Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Wiemann Villa have a group of forwards that wouldn't be out of place at a solidly midtable side. At the moment Villa's form suggests that they will just about manage to survive, and that they can do this with the most consistently inconsistent, naive, error-prone and weak defence in the whole league is a credit to the strength of their forwards.
Norwich are perhaps the complete opposite of Villa. Their primary forward this season has been, like last year, Grant Holt. However unlike last year his goal-scoring has been staggeringly indifferent, if not down-right poor, and January signings of Lucciano Becchio and Kei Kamara have failed to add teeth to Norwich's attack. In contast, their defence has been rock-solid for most of this season, with ex-Black Cat Michael Turner forming a solid partnership with Sebastien Bassong in the centre of defence. Another team that struggles to score goals is Stoke. With the uninspiring forward line up of Peter Crouch, Kenwyne Jones, Cameron Jerome and Jon Walters it is unsurprising that the Potters have failed to win a game since Boxing Day. Wigan's attack appears to be a microcosm of Roberto Martinez's side as a whole; talented but hair-tearingly inconsistent. On form, Arouna Kone, Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney are a dangerous front three, and if Martinez can get them on song then the Latics stand a reasonable chance of staying up this season.
To survive, then, Di Canio has to coax goals out of Sunderland's attack. On paper, it looks as good as any in the bottom half of the table - Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham are proven Premier League goalscorers, Connor Wickham is a promising talent, Sessegnon should be capable of pitching in with a significant addition as he did last season, and the same could be said for James McClean, Adam Johnson and Seb Larsson. However, the only consistent scorer out of the group, Fletcher, is now out for the season, and the efforts of the remaining attackers have been, frankly, laughable. Martin O'Neill seemed to be trying to build a Sunderland side based around strong defensive foundations, however as shown by Norwich's travails this is perhaps not the right strategy. What Sunderland need to copy now is the free-wheeling attack of sides like Southampton. We can no longer rely on defending ourselves out of trouble with 0-0 draws and narrow 1-0 victories, we need goals, even if they come at a cost of conceding we just have to try and score yet more. Increasingly the bottom of the table is becoming polarised between those teams with a reliable attack, and those without. If we wish to stay up another season, Sunderland have to jump from the latter group to the former.
Nick Holden; @nhldn on Twitter.