Steve Bruce’s Sunderland begin their fourth consecutive season in the Premier League against that other noughties yo-yo club, Birmingham City.
After taking over from the beleaguered Ricky Sbragia last summer, the former Wigan Athletic manager steered a squad ravaged by injury to 13th place, and two early cup exits.
While another summer has been/is being spent shearing the squad of its Roy Keane-era high-earners, arrivals have also been forthcoming.
With four young talents set to continue their exciting developments (Jack Colback, Jordan Henderson, David Meyler and Martyn Waghorn), and Darren Bent aware now is the time for more permanent England duties, the Black Cats must target a Europa League spot.
2009/10 begin in a blaze of pre-season friendlies. Chief among them was the game against eventual Europa League victors, Atlético Madrid, which Sunderland won 2-0.
Bruce set his side in a 4-4-1-1 formation, and the most startling selection personnel-wise was the inclusion of Henderson.
Henderson complemented the side’s hustling, high-octane style, although the performance of Steed Malbranque was most impressive – on the left flank, the right-footer tormenting Juan Valera.
Malbranque wasn’t restored to that station again until late on in the season – a move Jonathan Wilson hailed as the deus ex machina in Sunderland’s flagging campaign.
On the channels, Sunderland had the likes of Andy Reid and Boudewijn Zenden to call on. The Dutchman’s lack of pace and fitness meant he could only be introduced late on in game, howevers.
Nevertheless, he proved to be a valuable asset, sitting in when George McCartney veered forwards, or placing sharp left-footed crosses onto the head of several towering box-chargers.
The aforementioned Reid shone in the midfielder after shedding the pounds, but the same can’t be said of Anton Ferdinand, who only seems to be gaining them in the North-East.
Despite costing the club £8m, Bruce is now keen to rid of Ferdinand. Often criticised for concentration lapses, Sunderland have plenty of cover as it is at centre-back.
Despite spending lengthy stretches on the treatment table, the popular John Mensah returns for another loan spell courtesy of Lyon.
Mensah, fresh from a successful World Cup with Ghana, makes up the first choice centre-back pairing with Michael Turner.
However, like seemingly every defender the club purchases, Titus Bramble has been recruited for a hefty transfer fee.
He’s a likely contender to start, though it should be noted that Bruce is currently considering Turner for the captaincy. Matthew Kilgallon – possessor of that rare central defender commodity, pace – will also be knocking on the proverbial door.
Paulo Da Silva looked good for Paraguay in South Africa, but his lack of height renders him more potent at full-back in the Premier League.
Versatility is a quality this squad oozes – some of it known already,and some discovered by force in the midst of last season’s omnipresent injury crisis.
Ferdinand, for example, featured at right-back, left-back, defensive midfielder and centre-back last season. Elsewhere, Kieran Richardson proved adept at both left-back and support-striker.
Richardson has a year left to run on his contract, and the prospect of another season at full-back is one that delays him extending his deal.
Boldly, Bruce declares his future to be in that role. While, Richardson may be a great wing-back and hungry tackler, his defensive nous and positioning need improving.
The aforementioned McCartney, a man with as many injuries as he has nicknames (well, two in Ringo and Sausages), has been an expensive flop in his second-spell with the club.
As Phil Bardsley appears ill-equipped to cut it at Premier League level, and Alan Hutton returned to Spurs after a half-season lease, the board wisely allocated funds for the purchase of cover in these critical areas.
Marcos Angeleri, capped three times by Argentina but ignored by Diego Maradona’s full-back-free system during recent months, joins after eight years with Estudiantes.
Even more exciting is the protracted arrival of Egypt’s Ahmed Al-Muhammadi. The 22-year-old can play as part of a back three, on the right of midfield, or at right-back.
Tidy feet, quick of mind, a sharp crosser, an incisive squarer, and a willing participant are all qualities that describe the man who cost £5oo,000 for a mere season’s loan.
His overlaps will naturally have to be covered by a midfielder, and thus we might see Frazier Campbell restored to his berth as a striker.
Both Henderson and Meyler can play at right-sided centre midfield, or on the right of midfield, and would complement the bursts of the African champion.
The tricky Campbell did a sterling job on the right last year, but with Bruce likely to stay with a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 style, Campbell will be required to provide back-up to Jones and Bent.
Another option up front is Waghorn. The waspish youngster had a great spell on loan with Leicester Cit last yeary, illustrating various brilliant means of sticking the ball in the net.
After Bent and Jones, another player guaranteed his spot among the six players ahead of the defence is Lee Cattermole. Earmarked as Turner’s rival for the captaincy, Cattermole must, if you’ll excuse the pun, stamp out the demons from his game.
Although superb at unsettling the opposition, hunger occasionally channelled into nippy one-two manoeuvres, Cattermole flies into some dangerous challenges.
His suspensions were compounded by the absences of midfield sparring-partner Lorik Cana. The Albanian has now vacated the armband and city, joining Galatasaray.
Cana failed to truly acclimatise in the cut-thrust English top tier. Although capable of filling in competently at centre-back, his loss won’t disturb too much at the club.
Cristian Riveros is the man who’ll compensate for Cana’s departure. Signed with the supporting argument of offering more central creativity, Riveros spent the World Cup at the heart of a brutal Paraguay midfield.
Another option at centre midfield is Finland’s Teemu Tainio. Yet for 40,000 a week, Tainio spends more time than any sidelined. Despite his contributions being appreciated, his sacrificial exit won’t be mourned.
Injuries are obviously key to determining Sunderland’s season, seeing as they so overwhelmingly tampered with the club’s progression in 2009/10.
Already though, things are looking glum. £11million goalkeeper Craig Gordon has broken an arm, and will miss a significant portion of 2010s remaining games.
Márton Fülöp might have been an oft used and trusted deputy last season, but his goodbye is all but set-in-stone – Roy Keane’s Ipswich, the benefactors and buyers.
Keane is doing his old club a favour by relieving them of the deadwood. Grant Leadbitter and Carlos Edwards were others coaxed to East Anglia, Conor Hourihane following suit, and David Healy likely to join them all very soon.
Roy O’ Donovan will also now call the Championship home having left the Black Cats for the Sky Blues. It’s Coventry for him, Celtic for Daryl Murphy, and Carlisle for the woeful Jean-Yves M’voto (another of Keane’s special buys).
Although none of these players will be missed in the long-term, Fülöp’s absence will be felt in the short term as Sunderland are forced to rely on recently acquired Belgian rookie, Simone Mignolet in goal.
Tipped for the top despite a shaky pre-season, Mignolet is only being kept out of the Belgian team by Bari’s superb Jean-François Gillet.
And international football will also hamper Sunderland’s start to the 2010/11 campaign. Mignolet is one of several players called up to serve his country in upcoming games, the other crucial call-ups being for the two Paraguayans, Riveros and Da Silva, and Egypt’s Al-Muhammadi.
Tactically, going with any of 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 remains the biggest conundrum for Bruce. But with Jones often dropping deep to bolster the midfield, the 4-4-2 tends to resembles one of the latter two systems anyway.
A 4-4-1-1 is only really that when a creative midfielder flanks a striker mind, and with Richardson now seemingly a full time wing-back, such a style will be aired fleetingly.