By any standard, the current Sunderland team is one of the most skilful and creative that we’ve seen for quite some time.
After years of honest but ultimately limited players passing this way, often without making any real impact, the summer recruitment drive did have the desired effect - lowering the average age of the group and injecting some much-needed vigour into the dressing room.
Even a cursory glance at our squad highlights a plethora of exciting wide players and highly gifted midfielders, all of whom have the ability to pick an incisive pass, open a game up, or as in Elliot Embleton’s case, score a well-taken goal that helped us to a draw at Luton on Saturday.
On the flipside, there is a fragility to this team that can’t be overlooked, but it’s important to stress that it isn’t a fatal weakness, and something that can certainly be rectified.
Indeed, it is perhaps more of a mental fragility under pressure than a physical one.
The recalled Bailey Wright was in classic ‘take no nonsense’ mode on Saturday, cajoling and leading by example, but as last Saturday’s second half against Burnley highlighted, understanding what to do when the momentum swings away from us is something that we’ve yet to master.
It could've been a repeat scenario at Kenilworth Road, but although the end result was perhaps neither here nor there, the stinging frustration of conceding just before half time was eased by Embleton’s equalising goal and the fact that we were able to navigate our way through the second half in much more composed fashion.
The mixture of Luton’s well-drilled team and a cramped, old-school stadium could’ve proved another step too far for this developing team, and as Tony Mowbray sprang a surprise by naming Leon Dajaku in his starting XI, it did feel like he was rolling the dice.
Dajaku, along with the outstanding Amad, acquitted themselves very well and our willingness to shoot - something of an alien concept in recent weeks - was pleasing to see. Had we been slightly calmer in front of goal, the win would’ve been ours.
Saturday also offered proof that Edouard Michut is taking gradual steps forward, too.
Introduced in the second half, the on-loan PSG midfielder looked composed and unfazed by the situation he’d been pitched into, which was in stark contrast to his cameos against the likes of Burnley and Blackpool.
It may be the case that Michut is a ‘front foot’ kind of player, best deployed when we’ve established control of a game and the space is there to be exploited, but in what was previously a problem area, it’s great to see that he is slowly making a case for selection.
Another major positive to take away from Saturday was the return of Ellis Simms, who, during a twenty minute cameo, occupied defenders and showed signs of the potent movement that we’ve lacked recently.
Admittedly, Ross Stewart’s return can’t come quickly enough, but it should give everyone heart that the injury crisis that has hindered Mowbray badly in recent weeks is slowly starting to release its grip. Simms has a lot to give, and if the service is there, the goals will surely come for the Everton loanee.
Much had been made of our form ahead of Saturday’s game, and the fact that a third defeat would’ve been another gut punch. There has been a lot of emphasis placed on the need to pick up points before the ludicrously-timed World Cup break, but responding after such a setback is always crucial.
Admittedly, the league table looks less than spectacular from a red and white perspective, but with a winnable fixture coming up at Huddersfield on Wednesday, the entire picture could be much more positive when Cardiff arrive on Wearside on Saturday afternoon.
We will have to cope without the suspended Jack Clarke in West Yorkshire, but this is no one-man team: his absence will open up an opportunity for someone to come in and make an impression, hopefully without a significant drop in quality.
Despite the trials and tribulations of recent weeks, Sunderland are currently on the same path that countless promoted teams before them have walked. After seventeen games, we aren’t ripping the league to pieces and we’re not struggling badly, either.
Years ago, this would’ve been considered perfectly normal, but in the age of hyper-scrutiny and increased tension after poor results, everything is amplified. The real test for these players will be their ability to soak up the criticism and use it as a motivation, and Saturday, it felt like that’s exactly what they did.