When Chris Coleman switched to a back five for our game away at table-toppers Wolverhampton Wanderers in December it gave hopeful Sunderland supporters a sense of what was to come from the Welshman and his ailing side.
Whilst in charge of his country, Coleman preferred to operate with five defenders as a way of protecting the energetic midfield in front of them, and after a period of transition their system worked.
Coleman played limited players in their proper positions, and in order to build from that base he complimented them with talented individuals like Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale - the perfect mix of both quality and passion, the ingredients that were essential in their passionate run towards the semi-finals of the European Championships in 2016.
The point, I suppose, is that Coleman’s success with Wales did not happen overnight.
Granted, the former Fulham gaffer has nowhere near that level of quality player to select from at Sunderland, but the mantra he adopted remains true - you only want individuals that are prepared to work hard and contribute towards what you’re trying to achieve.
Nobody can be in any doubt that this man is absolutely the best possible person to be in charge of Sunderland, and taking into consideration the constraints placed upon him it would be unreasonable to expect any significant change in our ethos, way of playing or results until he’s been able to properly mould his side in the way he prefers it to look and feel. I genuinely believe we must stick by this man whether relegation happens or not - he’s our greatest chance of rebuilding in the lower leagues and we have to support him in everything that he does.
Unfortunately, despite some initial promise after the results we gained against Wolves and Fulham, it’s fairly clear that Coleman’s squad lacks personnel with the necessary characteristics in order to consistently carry out the instructions he’d like them to undertake.
Including that game with Wolves we’ve scored just three goals in our last seven outings - a pathetically paltry amount that simply is not good enough, and won’t be good enough if Sunderland are going to stay in the Championship beyond the end of this season. It’s clear that if we’re going to see an improvement in results, something has to change significantly.
Today I read an article from my fellow Roker Report writer Mark Carrick, and I felt that amongst the many good points that Mark made, he nailed it with one in particular - if no significant investment is forthcoming, Coleman has to utilise the youth players at his disposal further.
The chance afforded to Ethan Robson at Middlesbrough on Saturday proves further that sometimes an unproven kid is ultimately a better option than playing someone experienced out of position - Robson, for instance, is a round peg in a round hole.
Marc Wilson, traditionally a central defender, was god awful alongside the youngster in the centre of the park and you have to wonder whether Sunderland might have fared better just biting the bullet and playing another young midfielder, one more capable of performing in that position, alongside Robson in the two. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but you do have to ask yourself these questions.
Attacking midfielder Elliot Embleton played in an interchanging front three yesterday for our U23s against an experienced Derby County side and was the best player on the park, further proving just why the first team manager needs to perhaps take a closer look at what he has to offer.
The England U19s international is one of the most promising players in the current setup; he naturally prefers to create, has good technique on the ball, and is a threat from both set pieces and in open play. He’s a capable goalscorer and assist maker.
I’m not saying that he’s the answer to all of our problems, but we’ll most certainly be more of a goal threat with him on the pitch - and of all the prospects we possess (Bali Mumba aside), he’s the one that perhaps has the best chance of making it at the top level.
The same goes to Joel Asoro, a very raw forward who despite lacking experience and composure would provide Coleman’s side with the pace and unpredictability that it so desperately lacks.
What Asoro lacks in maturity, he more than makes up for it with the willingness to get beyond and stretch defences, a weapon that we’ve lacked in our arsenal ever since Duncan Watmore succumbed to injury a few months back.
We’re not scoring goals because we’re trying to play a system that centres around defensively solidy yet lacks any sort of movement or pace up front.
Playing five at the back is fine, but you have to give yourself the best possible chance of scoring goals by selecting players that can create chances when you pile forward on the break - unfortunately for us, you just aren’t going to do that when your first choice striker is James Vaughan, a player who doesn’t possess a great deal of pace and prefers to play with his back to goal.
Whilst I’m on the subject of underwhelming first-teamers, I have to ask: how many more chances must be given to Callum McManaman, a player who flatters to deceive each and every time he steps out onto the pitch? Are his performances warranting the amount of chances he’s continually given to start games? I’d suggest not.
With the daunting away game at Cardiff next Saturday now looking like a fixture we cannot afford to not take something from, Coleman must surely be tempted to give both young men an opportunity to prove their worth from the start of a game.
The Sunderland manager likely does not trust his defence enough to be able to go back to playing with a four, and I can sympathise, so the introduction of new signing Jake Clarke-Salter - a ball-playing defender who is strongest with his left foot - could be just what his side needs if they are going to start turning defence into attack more quickly.
I genuinely sympathise with Coleman - the options he currently has at his disposal are slim, and he doesn’t have a great deal of room to manouevre, but he has to consider changing up something if our fortunes are going to improve any time soon.
We have to take heart from the example of Coleman’s work with the Wales national team, though. It suggests that what we are seeing now most definitely isn’t the final product, nor is it something that the manager is content with - Coleman’s system will continue to evolve over time, and the hope is that things will continue to evolve the more he learns about the players he has at his disposal.
Immediately, however, he has to address the problem that we’re having with creating chances. Sunderland are not scoring enough goals, and players like Joel Asoro and Elliot Embleton haven’t played anywhere near enough football in order for them to have an impact. Maybe it’s about time that they do.