Thinking back to the home defeat by Bolton just under a month ago, the outlook was not looking rosy for Stuart Pearce. The 2-0 defeat to Bolton was the low point of a bad month of results which saw us just two points off the relegation zone with a series of games that on paper looked difficult, and could potentially have leave us involved in a relegation battle in a season where it is imperative that Premiership status is maintained.
As bad as the results had been, it was the manner of the performances which left fans disillusioned and fearing the worst - with the team booed off two games running and suggestions that Pearce was fast running out of time.
Since then however, it has been all change and the last half dozen games has seen an upturn in results to leave the outlook far more positive for 2007. Four wins and two draws have catapulted us onto the fringes of the European spots coupled with a favourable 4th round FA Cup tie in a season where more than half of Premiership sides will be out by round five.
Behind this run of results has been the switch to a new formation with Pearce now adopting a 3-5-2 line-up, or on occasion a 3-5-1-1. This has seen the side become far tighter away from home, and whilst the goals are not exactly flowing we are looking far more creative.
For the majority of his tenure, Pearce has opted for a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 which has not always worked and resulted in performances that were disjointed and lacking in confidence. Credit to Pearce and his coaching staff for the change, and the main benefit of the switch for me is that we are now playing to the strengths of the players he has at his disposal.
The strongest are we have is at centre-half, so it makes sense to go with three centrally, as Richards is not a natural full-back and neither Thatcher or Jordan were strong enough. This has seen the excellent recent form of Nedum Onouha, who did look awkward on his return at right-back.
Midfield has also seen an impressive change with the current trio - Dabo, Barton and Ireland looking better each game. Dabo - now fully fit, has fitted well into the 'Makelele' role, whilst Barton is improving with each game and seemingly starting every move. Stephen Ireland though is the key in this trio for me. A knock on him has been his inability to consistently play ninety minutes and I don't think being part of a midifeld two suited him, but with Barton and Dabo behind him (along with two wing-backs) this gives him far more freedom and options and some of the link play between the midfield was excellent agains Southampton.
There are still problems though and none moreso than in attack. This seems to be evidenced by the chopping and changing Pearce has been doing (along with the constant rumours of a new striker arriving) although he seems to be favouring the hold up play of Corradi along with the movement of Vassell. The left wing back position is still far from sewn up with Jordan not convincing - which is why I was surprised at the decision not to sign Francesco Coco, although it has meant we are spared the procession of square pegs in round holes seen in left midfield.
Credit must go though to Pearce and the coaching team for identifying the problem areas we had and coming up with the formation and tactics to suit the personnel we have. As I noted in the Sheffield Wednesday review, there is a little bit of a buzz around the club now - and we have seen both Richards and Barton pledge their future to the club, in particular talking up the spirit within the squad.
Although we are far from the finished article, there are several significant pieces in place now, and the start we have had should be built upon and ensure 2007 is far more succesful than 2006 was.