For the next four months, Dick Advocaat knows the hand he has been dealt after Sunderland’s summer overhaul concluded on the final day of the transfer window with the signing of DeAndre Yedlin.
Advocaat clearly favours a 4-3-3 set-up, but while the Sunderland boss knows his best formation, does he know his best side?
After boosting their ranks with eight signings, what is Sunderland’s strongest starting XI, ahead of their return to Premier League action this weekend?
Costel Pantilimon has picked the ball out of his net 11 times over the opening four games, and even shipped three goals against League Two Exeter in the Capital One Cup.
But it’s one of the positions which Advocaat won’t be genuinely fretting over, even if Vito Mannone will harbour his own hopes over ousting Pantilimon and regaining his number one spot.
There have been a couple of occasions when Pantilimon could have done better in these early exchanges of the season, yet that world-class save against Swansea to earn Sunderland a point demonstrated why the Romanian has become such an integral figure for the Black Cats.
Younes Kaboul’s vastly improved display at Aston Villa showed enough to indicate that the ex-Spurs man will justify Advocaat’s faith in spending £3million on his signature.
Who partners him though?
John O’Shea has been good, bad and indifferent during his three games.
Sebastian Coates has shown little of the resolve or concentration which made him so integral to Sunderland’s survival at the end of last season.
And Wes Brown now appears to be no more than a back-up in case of emergencies.
O’Shea will surely remain alongside Kaboul in the short-term, yet with Advocaat mindful of half an eye on the future, he will be keen to restore Coates to the side at some stage during the season.
Opposition scouting reports are not proving to be particularly taxing to compose ahead of facing Sunderland, at present.
Sides are clearly preying upon Sunderland’s vulnerability in the full-back areas, with Aston Villa shifting the ball wide at every opportunity 10 days ago.
The lack of protection from midfield for both Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt has not gone unnoticed by Advocaat and is an area he is doggedly working on in training.
Yet Jones and van Aanholt have to improve markedly themselves, albeit the latter has made some progress from the depths he reached in the opening two games of the season.
As the only specialist left-back in the squad, van Aanholt is likely to be given the benefit of the doubt by Advocaat, even if Sunderland were looking at that area in the closing days of the window.
But while Adam Matthews is out for another five weeks, Jones is under threat from the arrival of new boy DeAndre Yedlin, albeit there are reservations over whether the American international is another who is more comfortable going forwards.
With Yedlin unavailable this weekend, Jones will remain in the side, yet his place in the starting XI is distinctly vulnerable.
At the start of the season it was unimaginable that Lee Cattermole’s position in the side was in question, yet the Teessider’s place is in severe jeopardy for this weekend’s visit of Spurs.
Advocaat wants to play with one attacking midfielder, and two deeper players, rather than using the holding role which was such a favourite of Gus Poyet.
It looks like being either fit-again Jordi Gomez or Ola Toivonen for the more forward thinking spot, with the latter pencilled in to be first-choice.
And then it’s two of four from Cattermole, Jack Rodwell, Yann M’Vila and Seb Larsson to provide the grit and legs in the engine room.
M’Vila has to be in there after he has been Sunderland’s stand-out performer so far, while Rodwell has shown more than Cattermole, even if there was a familiar story of being too subdued at Villa.
Cattermole may have been integral over recent seasons, yet he has simply not been in step during these opening four games and could be facing a fight to get his place back.
With Adam Johnson still on the sidelines, there is a general consensus at present that Advocaat’s strongest attacking trio is Jeremain Lens, Jermain Defoe and Fabio Borini.
They all offer much more of a goal threat than either Danny Graham or Steven Fletcher, while Duncan Watmore is likely to remain confined to the role of super-sub.
But how will Advocaat arrange his front three?
He has already confirmed that he doesn’t think Defoe can play as a lone striker and while Borini is not a physically imposing frontman, he is probably more suited to operating with his back to goal.
However, Defoe, like Lens, will need to offer a helping hand defensively – part of the game which doesn’t come naturally to either.
That may offer a window of opportunity for Johnson when the winger returns to the fold in the next few weeks.
Is this Sunderland’s strongest XI? Pantilimon, Yedlin, Kaboul, O’Shea, van Aanholt, Rodwell, M’Vila, Toivonen, Lens, Defoe, Borini.