Sam Allardyce has told his Sunderland players that shoring up their leaky defence is the priority as he looks to keep them in the Premier League.
The Black Cats have already shipped 26 goals from their opening 12 fixtures this season. Only newly-promoted Bournemouth have conceded more.
And Allardyce, appointed at the start of October following the departure of Dick Advocaat, says their defensive record must improve in order to retain their top-flight status.
“My philosophy has always been you start from the back, and it goes without saying every team which wins the league has the best defensive record,” said Allardyce.
“When we are a conceding on average over two goals a game, that is the first thing which we have to stop and the players have to understand that.
“If they think it is a negative, it is not, it is a massive positive because as soon as you don’t concede a goal you don’t lose the game, then you have got a point and of course afterwards you only need one goal to win it.
“So it should be the most positive thing in their mind, because if they achieve a clean sheet as often as they possibly can it will give them a very, very good chance of winning more and more football matches and getting safer up the league as quickly as possible.”
Allardyce oversaw Sunderland’s 3-0 victory against Newcastle last month but has since seen his side slump to successive defeats at Everton – where they conceded six – and a 1-0 loss at home to Southampton prior to the international break.
Sunderland, second-from-bottom in the table and four points adrift of safety, will head to Selhurst Park on Monday night to face Crystal Palace.
“I am still experimenting because I need to find the system which suits the players to get results, and we are not getting those results,” added Allardyce.
“I don’t like to keep changing personnel or systems, but on the basis of not knowing my players that well at the moment and having two international windows since taking over when you lose the players to international duty means you get to know them even less.
“But trying to find the right system for a particular game and opposition is very important in trying to evolve the players and if we can find the system which gets us a result on a regular basis, then we won’t have to change it as much.
“But until then I am still looking and hoping we can achieve the system to help us produce more victories.”
Sunderland received a boost on the eve of the match with the news that England Under-21 international Duncan Watmore has signed a new four-year deal.
Allardyce said on the club website: “Duncan is an exciting prospect and the kind of talent you want to see coming through at your club.”