GUSTAVO POYET has likened the first month of his Sunderland career to a pre-season fact-finding mission, and claims it is no coincidence that the club’s improved form has come from a settled period of selection.
Having inherited a squad that had barely played together, Poyet understandably felt the need to experiment in his first few games in charge of the Black Cats.
The likes of Valentin Roberge, Modibo Diakite and Andrea Dossena were tried at various stages and discarded, while more established players such as Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson and Emmanuele Giaccherini have found it increasingly difficult to get into the team.
Gradually, however, things have stabilised, with the starting line-up at Fulham containing just two changes from the side that had beaten Manchester United in the Capital One Cup four days earlier.
There is a chance Poyet could name his first unchanged team when Sunderland take on Southampton this afternoon, and after so much volatility at the start of his reign, the Uruguayan is hoping to preside over a much more stable environment in the second half of the campaign.
“It has been a fundamental change,” he said. “I was learning through my early days here, getting to know people and seeing the reaction of the team. It was almost like the process you would normally go through in pre-season.
“Pre-season is always an important period. You have six or seven friendlies, and you are growing up as a team. You are seeing things that you do or don’t do, and you are changing things to improve your team.
“I had to do that during the season. I was trying to discover things while we were winning and losing, having players sent off, dealing with suspensions and own goals and goodness knows what else. While all that was happening, I was still learning about the players.
“But by the end of December, I had a pretty good idea about everything. Now, there are probably seven or eight players who I know are going to be there week in, week out, and that is a much better position to be in.”
The results of such a consistent selection are clear to see, with Sunderland having lost just one of their last nine matches in all competitions.
The only black spot in that run was the New Year’s Day defeat to Aston Villa, but with the previous three Premier League home games having witnessed a draw with Norwich and defeats to Tottenham and Chelsea, you have to go back to November 10 to find Sunderland’s last league victory at the Stadium of Light.
That statistic will clearly have to change in order for survival to be secured, and Poyet will modify his players’ pre-match routine in an attempt to address any home discomforts this lunch-time.
“I’ve been thinking about why and analysing a few things,” he said. “I hope we will put it right, and it is my responsibility to make sure that happens. I am very critical about myself, and when something is not working, the first thing I look at is the mirror and me.
“There are a few things I am going to try to correct for this game. I do not want to give too much away to Southampton, but there are a few things that might help us to perform as well as we have been performing away from home.
“Normally, it’s the other way around. I have had it before where my team has been performing very well at home, and you wonder how to take that into away games. For the first time in my career, it is the opposite way around and I have to try to bring the away form back home.
“The opposition plays a part as well because of the way they tend to play. Part of the issue is mental, but there is also a part that relates to coping with certain aspects of the game that we experience a little bit differently when we play at home.
“Maybe we are a little bit more hurried because we are playing at home. We need to manage that better as a team.”
If nothing else, however, Sunderland’s players will be going into today’s game believing they are capable of coming out on top. A shared team ethic has emerged from the rubble bequeathed by Paolo Di Canio, despite Phil Bardsley admitting that the spirit was “beyond dead” before the Italian departed.
“I was not here six months ago so I cannot comment on how it was then,” said Poyet. “But I understand as a normal person that when a team is not winning, there is a mental side that you need to work on.
“Sooner or later, I knew the atmosphere would be different. It doesn’t mean you are going to win football games, but that is where we are. There are so many different ways of coaching and dealing with players, and not one has been written as the best way to win games. But I believe in my way.”