WITH three Premier League games under their belt, it would have looked a lot brighter for Sunderland going into the international break with five points to their name.
It would represent real progress and a material improvement from the same stage last year, where Paolo Di Canio’s team limped into the first pit stop of the 2013-14 campaign with a solitary point.
Under the charge of Gus Poyet, they are making the steps in the right direction, but in the three games that have gone before – culminating in a 1-0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday – there is an obvious need for new blood.
They are a defender, a midfielder and an attacker away from looking like a squad capable of a top-half finish, but without them, it could end up being another difficult season for the Black Cats.
Their first defeat of the campaign was an unfortunate one. They started well, before weathering a storm just before half time and just as it looked like they’d done it, Charlie Austin fired home from a corner where too many experienced heads were caught ball-watching, a goal that proved to be the winner.
It was no disaster, and, as winger Adam Johnson pointed out, Sunderland are still learning.
“It's a setback but I think we played all right, to be honest,” said Johnson.
“They wouldn't have scored in a million years unless we made a mistake like we did. They never really looked like scoring and apart from one minute at the end of the first half we gave controlled the game.
“But that's football, it happens. You've just got to learn from it.
“At this level you can't afford to give the opposition opportunities. We did that and we got punished.
“We just couldn't quite seem to break them down but on another day we could have scored two or three.”
Harry Redknapp kicked his summer romance with the 3-5-2 formation into touch and played a more familiar 4-3-3 shape, but it was Sunderland who dominated for much of the first half.
Patrick van Aanholt fired into the side netting with 30 seconds on the clock, before Connor Wickham had to clear off the line at the other end from Austin’s header.
Adam Johnson found Steven Fletcher in the 11th minute and the Scot forced a smart save out of Rob Green, who pushed Fletcher’s effort wide, while van Aanholt benefited from Johnson’s vision, collecting his slide rule pass before firing high and wide.
For all Sunderland’s endeavour and brightness, Rangers looked capable of causing problems of their own, and Leroy Fer smacked the crossbar from 25 yards on the half-hour, while David Hoilett’s shot from the edge of the area drew a block from Mannone who collected at the second attempt.
After then, Sunderland seemed to crumble. Lee Cattermole, who had been backed by his manager for international selection this week owing to his newly-found discipline, showed a sadly familiar lack of restraint in firstly committing a silly foul on Jordan Mutch, moments before doing the same on Fer. One gained a booking, the second didn’t, when perhaps the second one was a stronger case for a yellow card from referee Bobby Madley.
QPR took full advantage of their rush of blood to the head, with Austin being denied by a Wes Brown challenge after Seb Larsson lost the ball, while Vito Mannone raced off his line to keep Matt Phillips at bay.
Sunderland were unable to see it through to half-time though, and two minutes into injury time, Rangers penetrated the red and white backline when Fer knocked down for Austin to fire home.
It became a tight, scrappy affair in the second half, with chances for Santiago Vergini and substitute Emanuele Giaccherini counting for nought, but the game sprang into life again in the final ten minutes.
Hoilett’s through-ball was snapped up by Mannone and whipped up the pitch, but Rangers got back well and defended Wickham’s attack, before Johnson’s cross for Wickham was piled into the stands by left-back Clint Hill.
Armand Traore wriggled clear of the defence from fellow substitute Bobby Zamora’s pass, but the former Arsenal left-back’s strike dropped wide of the post, while, at the other end, van Aanholt’s shot was deflected wide from Jozy Altidore’s pass.
Mannone came up for an 89th minute corner, where Giaccherini unleashed a fizzing effort that Green pawed away with aplomb, but for Rangers the points were safe and Sunderland began the long trip home with two points from their first three league games ahead of the international break.
For Johnson, out of the England reckoning, a break could not come at a worse time but he hopes Sunderland can make the most of the fallow week.
“You want a game to come as quickly as possible after a setback like this but it's a chance to rest up, except for the lads who are away, and maybe try and get one or two more (players) in,” said the former Middlesbrough man.
“Things are definitely moving in the right direction. The way we controlled Saturday's game, the way we passed the ball, they couldn't really get it off us. It didn't quite work because we gave them a goal and a few chances.
“We're confident in the team. But Saturday was a prime example of why you can't give the opposition chances. If you do that, it's difficult.”