Maybe, just maybe, the solution to Sunderland's lack of deep-lying creativity has been staring Martin O'Neill in the face all along. David Vaughan, starting his first Premier League game this season, controlled central midfield while also linking superbly with the similarly excellent Stéphane Sessègnon.
If it was surely no coincidence that Sunderland's best performance of the season coincided with Vaughan's emergence from the sidelines, Crystal Palace, who had hoped to sign the former Blackpool player, are now likely to be disappointed. Wearsiders, meanwhile, have received a reminder of just why Vaughan beat the much more vaunted Charlie Adam to Blackpool's player of the year award a couple of seasons ago.
The question now is whether he can sustain this form and avoid ending up, discarded and gathering dust, at the back of O'Neill's dressing room cupboard once more. Throw in the puzzle as to which five players out of Vaughan, Sessègnon, Sebastian Larsson, Jack Colback, Adam Johnson, James McClean, Alfred N'Diaye, Craig Gardner and, once he is fit again, Lee Cattermole will become the manager's preferred starting midfield quintet and there is much for Sunderland supporters to ponder.
It will be a shame if Colback cannot be squeezed in somewhere. Naturally a central midfielder, he shone at left-back, thoroughly frustrating Joe Cole while deputising for the hamstrung Danny Rose.
"We had two midfield players [Gardner and Colback] at full-back and they were both very good," O'Neill said. "Jack played remarkably well, he was very composed and read situations really well."
O'Neill sometimes has the air of a slightly eccentric, yet razor-sharp, headmaster and, as he awarded Vaughan, Larsson – the scorer of a sublime opening goal, struck from 20 yards – and Sessègnon "excellents" he might have been reading out mid-term school reports in morning assembly.
It is hard to imagine Titus Bramble as a model pupil but the recalled centre-half enjoyed a splendid game, winning everything in the air and barely permitting Carlton Cole a touch.
Sam Allardyce suspected this said more about Cole and company than Bramble and friends. Dubbing West Ham's display "pathetic" he was not minded to spare anyone's feelings. "We didn't defend correctly, we didn't have the right appetite to nullify the opposition's strengths," said the West Ham manager.
"It's a performance that's extremely difficult to accept. We were poor in all departments. The one player who did all right was Jussi Jaaskelainen in goal, the rest underperformed.Shocking defending helped Johnson – steadily improving, if not yet exactly sensational, although he did delight the crowd by selling the disappointing Kevin Nolan a dummy – hook in Sunderland's second goal on the counterattack, and another adroit break led to McClean shooting the third.
While Dan Potts floundered at left-back, James Tomkins – on for the hamstrung James Collins – did little to suggest that Newcastle should part with £10m in exchange for his central-defensive abilities. More positively, N'Diaye, O'Neill's imposing 6ft 2in £4m midfield buy from Bursaspor, shot narrowly wide with his first touch as a late substitute and he could soon be joined by the 6ft 5in Senegalese centre-half Kader Mangane, set to arrive on loan from Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia.
"We're a bit small, it's harder to imagine a team smaller than us in the Premier League," O'Neill said. "In some games this season we've found the physical aspect hard to cope with but Alfred hasn't been brought in just because of his size. He's also a talent."
Following a day when the 5ft 7in Vaughan emphasised that size is not everything, N'Diaye's challenge is to prove power and athleticism are not his only strong suits.
Man of the match David Vaughan (Sunderland)