After the defeat to Middlesbrough, an intriguing image circulated on social media of Lee Cattermole and Darron Gibson.
As Adam Matthews prepared to take a throw in, Gibson was crouched with his hands on his knees, looking absolutely paggered; Cattermole meanwhile, looked like he had just wandered onto the field and didn’t know where he should be.
The picture summed up the pair’s afternoon.
One still from a constantly fluid match can be misleading and is easy to analyse out of context - if you want to be kind to both players. Seeing both men look so tired and lost is an all too familiar sight though, and therefore, the image is fair game to use as a criticism.
The form of Cattermole this season has been shocking, both in terms of surprise and standard.
Gone are the imposing, tough tackling, drag-his-teammates-through-the-game style performances. They’ve been replaced by limp, turgid and sluggish displays which have left most supporters calling for his name to be hauled off the team sheet.
In the case of Gibson, a player who has constantly failed to impress during his eleven months on Wearside, the sub-par performances are just confirming the fears that we had when he first signed last January.
Neither central midfielder is offering the kind of energy needed to help propel Sunderland out of their dire situation.
On Sunday, Cattermole made no tackles and no interceptions, a truly alarming indictment for a player of his style. Neither he or Gibson are helping break up opposition play, and on top of that they’re ineffectual when in possession.
Sunderland’s midfield, which is so non-existent that it constantly heaps pressure on an already leaky defence, needs a complete overhaul.
It needs younger, more energetic players that have the application and hunger to drive the team on.
Hopefully, the two players that are actually capable of beginning that process were already on the field at The Riverside Stadium, albeit played slightly out of position.
When Didier Ndong was forced off through injury, Sunderland lost one of the few players who was offering enthusiasm and a willingness to impact the game.
Playing in a wider position, Ndong got forward well when on the ball and offered his teammates options when he wasn’t in possession. He was constantly moving and seemed difficult to deal with, thanks to his unpredictable movement.
Pushed higher up and in the centre of the pitch, Paddy McNair appeared to be a strong presence in the middle.
It was impressive to see McNair win three aerial duels in a decent physical display, until a lack of match fitness - understandably brought on by the fact he’s missed so much football over the last year or so - caught up with him.
When you couple that with a willingness to make runs into the box and a desire to prove that he can grab goals, there may just be the basis for a partnership with McNair and Ndong in the centre of our midfield.
I’m not saying that Didier Ndong and Paddy McNair will be the saviours of our season, but the new manager coming in - whenever that may be - could do much worse than to give them a run of games together in those positions.
In Ndong, you have a player who is comfortable in possession, if sometimes a little too cautious.
That being said, look at his ball through to Lewis Grabban against Bolton, or even his shot which was parried to the aforementioned striker early on against Middlesbrough; if given a bit of freedom and confidence, Ndong might just be able to be more effective creatively.
We know he has the defensive capabilities, even if his form has dipped at times this season - Ndong lives to intercept passes and doesn’t shy away from making tackles.
You can apply similar compliments to McNair, a player who has spoken about how he wants to prove himself as a goalscoring midfielder.
He arrived on the scene at the perfect time to equalise against Bolton and isn’t scared to get his hands dirty by winning the ball on the ground or in the air.
After leaving Manchester United and missing the majority of last season through injury, he will be desperate to make a mark and show everyone his potential.
We’re bottom of the league and we can’t afford to carry players who look like they’re past their best. A strong spine is desperately needed if this Sunderland side are to get out of trouble, and that spine needs to be built on energy and commitment, as well as quality.
I know who I trust to try and provide that - it isn’t Lee Cattermole, and it’s certainly not Darron Gibson.