Sunderland look a more streetwise team this season.
Two campaigns in League One have toughened them up and given them a clearer idea of exactly what qualities they need to win promotion from this division as they make their third attempt.
They have learned that pretty football is all well and good, but the ends always justify the means.
And they have been taught the value of ruthless efficiency and professionalism.
Because for Sunderland, achieving promotion this season IS Project Big Picture. Nothing else matters.
Their win at Swindon Town was a case in point.
Had the game had been played in front of a crowd (if only!), there would have been few moments when fans would have been out of their seats.
It was a game that might have appealed more to coaches looking at workrate, pressing, and the implementation of a tactical plan, than to supporters looking for raw entertainment and excitement.
But what mattered – to a coach or to a fan – was that they got the job done.
Phil Parkinson continued with his policy of chopping and changing in attack, where he prefers to pick the strikers he feels are most likely to cause problems for the team Sunderland are facing on that day.
Charlie Wyke and Chris Maguire were the chosen ones against Swindon, with Danny Graham and Aiden O’Brien – who had started at Charlton before the international break – dropping to the bench.
Any changes, particularly where Sunderland’s strikers are concerned, spark debate but by full time there were few complaints with Wyke and Maguire both on the scoresheet and three points safely in the bag.
Wyke’s goal – his first in the league this season – was a simple volleyed finish from close range shortly before half-time, aided by the fact that the Swindon defence for some reason left him completely unmarked as Lynden Gooch delivered the cross.
And Maguire earned and converted a penalty just before the hour, having been upended by former Middlesbrough defender Jonathan Grounds.
But while the forwards played their part, and Grant Leadbitter pulled the strings in midfield, at the County Ground as Sunderland climbed to fifth in the table, their five-game unbeaten start has been founded on their rock-solid defence.
Their record of four clean sheets in five league games, and just one goal conceded, means they have the best record in League One.
They have yet to be breached from open play in the league, with the one goal that Lee Burge has given up coming from a penalty he gave away just three minutes into the opening game against Bristol Rovers.
At Charlton a couple of weeks ago Sunderland kept clean sheet number three despite playing the final 15 minutes with ten men.
But clean sheet number four was far more impressive, with injuries and the suspension resulting from Tom Flanagan’s dismissal at The Valley forcing Parkinson to rejig things.
Long-term injuries to centre-backs Arbenit Xhemajli and Morgan Feeney meant the versatile Luke O’Nien had to fill in as a left-sided central defender, with Conor McLaughlin playing in O’Nien’s usual right wingback role.
And with Denver Hume missing with a knee injury, Gooch was called upon to play at left wingback.
Sunderland’s problems got worse when Jordan Willis limped off with a foot injury – hopefully no more than bruising, although it will be X-rayed as a precaution – inside the first 20 minutes, prompting another reshuffle.
McLaughlin shifted across to plug the gap left by Willis on the right side of the back three, while Jack Diamond came on to play wingback.
While all around him had an unfamiliar look, at the heart of the back line Bailey Wright was imperious.
And as a unit they held out until the 93rd minute before allowing Swindon what turned out to be their one and only shot on target, which was blocked by the underemployed Burge.
Parkinson was delighted with the way his patched-up defence coped, but he will be relieved that he managed to bring in an extra centre-back in Dion Sanderson on deadline day, even if he was not signed in time to play at Swindon.
He is also looking at bringing in at least one free agent to reinforce his defence further, with specialist cover for Hume at the top of the agenda.
But in the meantime, he will be able to reflect on a comfortable victory achieved in challenging circumstances.