The Italian has brought in 14 new players this summer and the Wearside revolution has made a stuttering start
Paolo Di Canio has always dared to be different. The common behavioural conventions observed by most managers rarely seem applicable to a man who has no inhibitions about sporting sunglasses on the cloudiest day or striding around Sunderland's training ground wearing full camouflage-patterned combat trousers.
This, after all, is an Italian who, while in charge of Swindon, not only welcomed fans to an open day celebrating promotion by leaping on to a specially constructed stage and joining the band Toploader in belting out Dancing in the Moonlight but subsequently spoke openly about his trip to Stonehenge to celebrate the winter solstice.
Past Sunderland managers might have politely declined an invitation to play the pantomime villain at St James' Park on Wednesday night but, undeterred, Di Canio shone for a Milan XI who beat a Newcastle United ensemble in Steve Harper's charity testimonial.
Things are not yet running quite as smoothly 12 miles to the south where the 45-year-old is tackling a much more daunting challenge in similarly bold fashion.
A "revolution" is under way on Wearside where 14 players – 13 of them foreign – have been recruited by the former agent Roberto De Fanti, Sunderland's director of football, and Valentino Angeloni, the chief scout poached from Internazionale this summer. Only five of the new players have Premier League experience.
Such radical change is proving neither painless nor seamless. Although Sunderland's style of play is already significantly more pleasing and progressive, only one point has been taken from three Premier League games. Arsenal's visit on Saturday marks the start of what looks a formidable series of fixtures.
Several pundits have pounced on Di Canio's willingness to criticise players, including his captain, John O'Shea, for mistakes but Di Canio is unapologetic. "I did it at Swindon as well and we won the league," he said. "It's strange this criticism only happens to Paolo Di Canio. Harry Redknapp did many interviews last year and no one asked why he said his team was playing rubbish football.
"My relationship with my players is closer than you think. It means that for me I can point the finger straight away and say, 'For your level, it's rubbish.' If something silly happens behind closed doors, I can punish but I won't put it in the public. But if you don't give stick for public mistakes, they might keep repeating those mistakes."
Warming to his theme Di Canio brandished a transcript of a management lecture given by Sir Alex Ferguson at Harvard business school. "Ferguson point number one. Never, ever cede control. The common theory is that if you upset big egos you have problems. Egos need a stick. They need a slap. If 11 egos have a very weak manager you sink and sink and sink.
"You can't be passive about it; you have to fight it. To do this costs something. You upset people. They have to become stronger. You have to have a meritocracy. The club have to back their manager. Players should not have power. If they feel they are stronger than the manager, the manager is finished. And also the plan might be finished."
Sunderland's plan is to identify realistically priced players of exciting potential and leave Di Canio to mould them into a fluent passing unit full of movement, width and willingness to build from the back.
This summer's haul includes established talent (the Italy winger Emanuel Giaccherini signed from Juventus), raw promise (the United States striker Jozy Altidore bought from AZ Alkmaar) and educated gambles (Cabral, the former Basel midfielder).
At Swindon Di Canio earned a reputation as a highly accomplished coach and tactician and even arch critics, such as the former Sunderland defender Titus Bramble, agree he is a gifted training ground educator. Yet integrating so many newcomers at once is difficult. Much hinges on how quickly the tactic of asking players to share rooms on away trips improves the squad's overall cohesion and command of English.
At least Ellis Short, Sunderland's owner, knows his manager is not easily deterred. This was emphasised when, after agreeing to run a charity 2km race in Swindon Di Canio took a wrong turn and ended up completing a half marathon by mistake.
"I never stopped running, not even for one second," he said. "I couldn't stop. There was a challenge."