There are two tell-tale signs that we are deep amidst an international break. Firstly, in the absence of anything actually meaningful to think about, I find myself obsessively pouring over statistics and asking questions that actually require some thought and application to answer. Secondly, the Roker Report lads get a weekend email from our iron dictator Simon Walsh frantically worrying about how we can possibly fill a full schedule on the site. Fortunately, these two events can sometimes align and produce something deep, insightful, and guaranteed to arm you with all the tools necessary to cast yourself in the role of the great debate master in your local ale-house.
Obviously, this isn't one of those occasions. It will, however, pass a little time, so why not...
I decided to take Sunderland's record taken from the league table on this date during each of our Premier League seasons since promotion in 2007, and compare it to how we currently stand this year. Naturally, given the vast array of variables that go into football, no one is claiming it proves anything at all. What we offer here is merely a point of interest, not any definitive conclusions. An aide to debate, not an end to it.
One thing that stands out immediately is that for all the bluster, excuses, and grandiose claims of 'my best squad here', our start this season is more in keeping with what went on to become pretty dicey relegation battles rather than seasons in which the top half was coveted.
Secondly, given that Bruce so far has a record at Sunderland of nothing but downward motion from this time of the year, this start must be a worry. I struggle to see how anyone can look at it without any genuine sense of trepidation.That isn't to say it definitely will happen again, of course, but this has become a season where Bruce must prove he is capable of creating some genuine mid-season momentum. If the same old winter failings rear their head again, there appears to be precious little room for error this time.
Given the disparity between games played, though, not much more of note can be ascertained from the above comparison. So lets break it down a little...
What is apparent from this break-down is that fans worried about where the points are going to come from have some genuine substance to their concerns. Even compared to the modest Bruce Sunderland teams of recent times, the current side has really struggling to win games and pick up points during this time of the year.
But upon closer inspection, you realise just how fine the margins are. Clearly, Bruce has the side defending very well, and remarkably goals have come easier to Sunderland this season than they were with Darren Bent leading the line last year. The major issue appears to be simply a case of being unable to turn tight games in our favour.
That sinking feeling when we witness our side completely fail to take advantage of dominant spells in games has been an all too familiar one this season. As has the feeling of foreboding as those spells pass without a goal and transition into the opposition taking their turn in the ascendancy, and the quiet sigh of inevitability when they go on to make them count.
People will look at this and draw their own conclusions. Some will bemoan the absence of that little bit of luck, some will point perhaps to a fixture list that has seen us already face Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United this season. Some may not believe the statistics have any relevance at all.
But to me the problem is clear. The current Sunderland squad just seems to be one completely bereft of any real ruthlessness in front of goal. I see goals in the side. Sessegnon, Bendtner, Larsson, Gardner, Wickham... there are goals there. Is there anyone you'd genuinely back to get that goal at the crucial time, though? Not that I see, no. I don't believe we've seen our side comprehensively outclassed on the pitch by anyone at all this season, and the fact that no team has been able to beat us by any more than a single goal winning margin so far is testament to that. It doesn't look like it will take much to see a dramatic upturn in rewards.
There is nothing groundbreaking about the numbers offered here, of course. Just a case of taking the opportunity to pause for a breather and seeing how we are currently measuring up to recent standards. But it should, at the very least, dispell any notion that Sunderland are not stuck in a worrying downward spiral right now. That much is unquestionable. Whether it can be turned around is the only prevalent issue.
The big concern for me is whether Bruce is capable of overseeing such a change when he has shown precious little evidence of it during his time here so far. Bruce's best work here has always been in the off-season, during which he has worked something of a minor miracle in transforming the squad he inherited to the one we have today whilst largely balancing the books. Can he inspire an uncharacteristically cheery winter on Wearside? We certainly need him to after the start we have made.