New boss must make Sunderland more ruthless
Thirteen games into last season, Sunderland were sixth in the Premier League table and riding high following a 3-0 victory at Chelsea.
After the same number of games this term, it is a starkly different picture. The Black Cats are fifth from bottom following their injury-time defeat by fellow strugglers Wigan last Saturday, and it was enough for manager Steve Bruce to be sacked after what owner Ellis Short called a "trying start to the season".
Results were not good enough, Short said. But the strange thing is that when you analyse many of Sunderland's performances this season, they have not been playing that badly.
They have scored the same number of goals in the same period, despite losing strikers Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan, and the on-loan Danny Welbeck in the last year.
They have improved their shots on target, their pass completion and their crossing, while they have conceded only two more goals than at the same stage last season. In fact, only the top seven teams have a better goal difference than them.
Where it really mattered, though, Sunderland fell short. In the top flight, the Black Cats have won only three times in front of their home fans in 2011, and a poor injury record and a vast influx of new players taking their time to bed in have not helped either.
Former Sunderland striker Marco Gabbiadini, who is a co-presenter on BBC Radio Newcastle, believes the team has been lacking the same kind of approach that saw them tear Chelsea to shreds at Stamford Bridge last November.
"That's the trouble with us - not enough wins," said Gabbiadini, speaking before Bruce was sacked. "Our goal difference is excellent compared to everybody else around us, and we seem to be doing very well in games up to a certain point, but we just can't seem to kill games off.
"If you look at the squad we haven't got enough players with that killer instinct. As an ex-striker I was someone who probably gave the ball away too much at times, because I was always trying to take the man on and trying to turn into dangerous areas, but Sunderland have not got enough players who do that."
Sunderland were almost spoilt for strikers last season, whereas this term they have had to rely on Connor Wickham, Stephane Sessegnon and the on-loan Nicklas Bendtner.
Decent acquisitions all of them, but Bendtner is not known for scoring as regularly as Bent, Wickham is making his debut season in the Premier League and Sessegnon is more of a forward who works between the opposition midfield and defence.
Bruce was not helped by a recent injury to Wickham suffered against Manchester United, just as it looked like all three were beginning to gel. Yet Gabbiadini, who scored 74 goals in 157 appearances for the Black Cats, believes that Bendtner needs to be more involved in areas where he can make a difference.
"I know there are people who said that Bent didn't score that many goals last year and the team have scored more goals from different positions, but he was a very good target man," added Gabbiadini.
"People used to say differently, but he makes very intelligent runs and holds the ball up and brings others into play. He also plays the 18-yard box as well, which sounds obvious, but look at Bendtner in comparison.
"He's a great footballer, but I watched him on Saturday and he spent most of his time outside the width of the 18-yard box. As a striker I was always taught that when things aren't going too well for you, just play the width of the penalty box and even narrower sometimes if you want to get in on the action.
"He's an intelligent footballer, and he's actually done very well for us, but at the moment and with our injury record over the last two seasons, we haven't got anyone to support him."
That may be helped by the return of Fraizer Campbell, who is due to return from a knee injury in the coming weeks. And before the crushing defeat by Wigan, where Wes Brown's mistake helped Franco di Santo to score an injury-time winner, Sunderland were actually four games unbeaten at home.
How much spending power the incoming manager will have is unclear - Bruce made 10 signings in the summer.
With the likes of Brown, John O'Shea, Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner among them, there is some undoubted quality to enable the club to return to winning ways. But Gabbiadini believes fans should be realistic about the club's ambitions.
"Sunderland finished 10th last season, but that doesn't mean you are going to be 10th every season," he said. "This is the first time we've been in top flight for five consecutive seasons since the 1980s.
"Until we can become a club who can move onto the next level we have to take it on the chin. I'm not saying we have to be fighting relegation every year but we have had two seasons where it's been quite comfortable.
"We've signed a lot of players who are a decent age and hopefully will all be at the club for a few years so, if we can get it right, it looks promising for the future."
If the new manager can mould Bruce's buys into a more ruthless outfit, then Sunderland can look forward to re-establishing themselves where most fans think a club of their size belongs.