Preston v Sunderland: Just what has gone wrong this season and can Simon Grayson turn it around for the Black Cats?

A trip to Deepdale, where the team Simon Grayson built has found an extra gear this season, already has the feel of a critical game for the Black Cats boss.

Managerial sackings may be commonplace in football but generally they come in two distinct blocks.

One is in October, the time when there has been enough football for patterns to be visible but enough time left for executives to have delusions of revival. The other is in March, where desperation sets in and shock therapy is sought.

The second international break last season saw the departures of Paul Trollope, Roberto Di Matteo and Nigel Pearson from Cardiff, Aston Villa and Derby. By the end of the month, Walter Zenga and Alan Stubbs were gone from Wolves and Rotherham, Gary Caldwell from Wigan Athletic.

Grayson, will, in all likelihood, avoid that fate.

There is of course the financial picture to consider, but it is also worth remembering how strongly Martin Bain backed David Moyes even at the height of fan discontent last season.

Despite the wretched results, Grayson remains a manager that fits the profile of the environment Bain is trying to build, from recruitment to culture to playing style. Bain knows the size of the task he has handed Grayson, and it seems unlikely that he will deem 11 games long enough to have succeeded in it.

The more pertinent question, then, is how Grayson can go about stemming what has become a worrying and rapid decline from the opening weeks of the season.

Sunderland are again paying for a summer where their situation demanded a major overhaul, glaring gaps needed to be plugged. With little knowledge of exactly which players from their failing side would generate interest the end result has been another unbalanced squad. A glut of similar players in some positions, an obvious shortage in others.

How, for example, have Cardiff City gone from lower mid-table last season to the dominant force this? A key factor is surely that by the time the transfer window opened on June 1, Neil Warnock had already done well over 75% of his business.

It is the same story with Preston, doing critical business both last January and early in the summer.

That is the benefit of gradual progression and stability, a sustainable and clear recruitment processes.

Sunderland in the market are constantly trying to stitch things together, rathing than gradually improving the strength and depth of their squad over a number of windows in a targeted way. The financial situation compounds that problem, with the Black Cats forced to wait until late in the window to get deals at a cut price.

Grayson, then, has been trying to search for his best side, introducing players who have not played for a long time to the phsyical demands of the Championship. Inevitably that has led to niggling injuries, something which will likely continue for a while yet. Match that with a group of players clearly mentally drained after years of Premier League toil, and it has in recent weeks made for a toxic mix. Sunderland are regularly being outfought and outplayed by younger teams with momentum and confidence.

In the wide areas and the centre of midfield, where Sunderland looked to be well set before the season began with experienced, top level campaigners, they have been found alarmingly wanting.

The tinkering has not helped, the organisation a mess, a lack of time on the graining fround obvious. Grayson went for a 4-2-3-1 on Tuesday night, a system that looks, when players are in their best positions, by far and away the best shape for this squad.

The time must surely have come for some continuity and persistence with that.

The habit of collapsing, conceding a flurry of goals, has continued from last season, the old gremlins seen as far back as a pre-season disaster at St Johnstone. There, Grayson’s man management skills will be put to the test, particularly with players who dropped down from the Premier League and are being exposed against young, hungry opponents.

Grayson will be pining for two weeks on the training ground after this Preston game, his first prolonged spell with many of his summer recruits.

The level of investment in the squad and the nature of the recruitment leaves Sunderland limited, and the deficiencies of the squad are quickly becoming glaringly obvious.

What has been alarming so far is that even the basics have gone missing. The defending has been appalling, a combination of apparent confusion and dreadful decision making.

That is an area where both manager and players have no excuse, and it needs to corrected quickly. Sunderland look distressingly close to the trapdoor once again.