Lee Johnson believes Alex Pritchard is the player who can pull the strings in Sunderland's promotion challenge.
The summer signing was struck down with Covid soon after he arrived and has also had a neck injury since the season began, meaning he has yet to reach peak fitness.
But in recent weeks there have been signs of the quality Pritchard was brought in to add, scoring at Shrewsbury ten days agao, then his corner forced an own-goal at Cambridge last weekend, and it was his assist that led to Leon Dajaku's goal in Sunderland's 1-1 draw against Oxford United yesterday.
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"Pritch is going to be important for us and I think you see that as well," said Johnson.
"We are still building him up. He's 95 percent fit and I think he has that quality to unlock doors at this level that most people haven't."
Pritchard was substituted five minutes from time against Oxford but Johnson says that was purely down to fatigue rather than an injury concern.
He said: "Pritch was blowing.
"I'm close to the pitch and I could see that at that point he was struggling to get air into his lungs in terms of recovery,
"We put Embo [Elliot Embleton] into the number ten role, he has that similar quality to Pritchard, and Briz [Aiden O'Brien] came on and gives us fresh legs and energy."
Sunderland are currently having to cope with a lengthy injury list, with Aiden McGeady, Luke O'Nien, Dennis Cirkin, Niall Huggins, Denver Hume, and Corry Evans all sidelined.
And after yesterday's game Johnson revealed that on-loan West Ham defender Frederik Alves is also in the treatment room, along with youngsters Will Harris and Ellis Taylor who have both been in and around the first team squad in recent weeks.
"Harris is out, Ellis Taylor has a bug, Frederik Alves got a shoulder injury in training and we don't know how long that will take but hopefully it's not too bad," he said.
"Lee Burge is fit but just wasn't involved.
"We're a club that has set its stall out to try and bring young players through.
"There have been some really outstanding performances this year and at times the young players have carried us.
"If you look at our injuries to senior players, these are the guys you would be expecting to play every week and be the stalwarts."
Sunderland took the lead through Dajaku inside the first ten minutes, but his goal was cancelled out by Matty Taylor ten minutes before half-time.
The Black Cats hit the woodwork twice in the second half - first through Ross Stewart, and then Nathan Broadhead - but they could not find a winning goal.
"I'm full of praise for my players," said Johnson.
"We haven't got the win, but in terms of the quality on show and the level of sheer territory we had in the second half, we deserved more from the game."
Sunderland won their first six home league games this season but since then they have won one, lost one, and drawn one at the Stadium of Light.
Johnson says the pitch is not now as suited to play the fast, passing style that his team made their hallmark in the early part of the campaign, but says it is up to them to adapt their game accordingly.
He said: "The pitch isn't really conducive to the way that we want to play.
"I know it's the same for both teams, but if you look at the first five games the ball was zipping around and the spin on the ball, and now it's almost tumbleweeding.
"We have to change our style at times based on the environment, and that is classic of football in League One.
"We have to understand that in this division you have to win in many different ways."
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