A TEAM in red-and-white stripes playing with five at the back and overlapping centre-halves – for Sheffield United in the Premier League, read Sunderland in League One.

The two systems are not identical of course, and under Chris Wilder, the Blades have mastered their preferred formation to the extent that they have been able to rise from the third tier to the brink of European qualification in the space of three seasons.

Yet when Phil Parkinson decided to switch systems on Wearside last season, and opted to stick with his new-look line-up for the current campaign, he happily used Sheffield United as one of the blueprints for his plan.

When football locked down at the start of the summer, and the League One campaign was permanently mothballed, Sunderland’s players were instructed to observe some of the tactics adopted by teams in the Premier League. Sheffield United were an obvious focal point, along with Wolves, who also play with five at the back. It is early days, but the effectiveness of the Black Cats defence in the first month of the season suggests some of the lessons have sunk in.

“There’s quite a few teams do it (play with five at the back) in the Premier League, and even the Championship,” said Denver Hume, who has cemented his position as Sunderland’s first-choice left wing-back in the opening four weeks of the season. “The Premier League was on (at the start of the summer), so it was good to watch those big games and take bits of your game and try and implement things from other players you watch.

“If you look at Sheffield United and how they play, it probably is a bit similar to us. Obviously not exactly the same, they’ve been playing it longer than us and are better in some parts which is why they’re in the Premier League. But teams like that - Wolves play it as well - watching them and taking bits from players in your position and seeing what they do and what works well for them.”

The quality of Hume’s performances have been a notable feature of Sunderland’s start to the current campaign. The 22-year-old academy product looks a much stronger and fitter proposition than the callow youth who broke onto the first-team scene last season, with his positional play also much improved.

He was arguably Sunderland’s stand-out performer in last week’s EFL Trophy win over Carlisle United, tearing up and down the left-hand side as he claimed his second senior goal, and while he has spent much of the summer concentrating on the defensive part of his game, he readily admits increasing his goals return is a key ambition this season.

“I’m a young player, so there’s still a lot of my game to improve on,” said Hume, whose only goal in the whole of last season came in January’s four-goal home win over Wycome Wanderers. “I’d say I want to improve all-round really. But the stuff I’ve been working on with the staff is making sure my defensive side is really good.

“It’s all good going forward, but it’s about making sure I’m recovering hard and helping whoever is playing on the left side of the centre backs.

“Going forward, the gaffer has been telling me to get in at the back stick to try to get more goals, (while) still creating stuff, trying to get assists and plenty of crosses in.”