Arsenal play host to Sunderland today. It’s a meeting between two teams at the wrong end of the table, desperate to get their respective seasons back on track. According to rumours in the media, Sunderland boss Steve Bruce is on the verge of the sack. It is a measure of how poor our start has been that at kick-off we have just one more point and a significantly worse goal difference.
Like us, Sunderland underwent major rebuilding in the summer, bringing in a host of new players and losing a couple of key stars in Jordan Henderson and Asamoah Gyan. Unlike us, they do not expect to be challenging for honours at the end of the season. A few wins on the bounce will take them up in to mid-table and back in line with their expectations. Arsenal have a far greater hill to climb. We have an obligation not only to pull ourselves clear of the relegation zone, but towards the distant goal of the top four.
At the moment, this feels like a relegation six-pointer. It ought to feel like a home banker. Although Sunderland’s away form has been surprisingly decent (only one defeat for their first three games), Arsenal have to win today. Our next league fixtures are home ties against the Mackems and then Stoke. Six points would make a tremendous difference to our confidence, and almost double our total for the season.
There are, however, new problems to overcome. We have lost our most consistent and reliable defender, Bacary Sagna, for a period of several months. There are serious doubts over the ability of the obvious deputy, Carl Jenkinson, who has played most of his football in the non-league and still carries the scars of an Old Trafford mauling. Nevertheless, he’ll start today, and Arsene has unsurprisingly declared his confidence in the young man:
“He has top qualities. His fitness is outstanding, he’s quick, he has good crosses and he is good going forward. He needs to adjust a little bit his defensive game. But we are working with him and he is improving.”
Per Mertesacker, Laurent Kosicelny and Kieran Gibbs attempting to help him acclimatise, and they’ll be pleased not to have to deal with Nicklas Bendtner, who is prevented from playing for Sunderland by the conditions of his loan deal.
Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey will most likely patrol the midfield, with Gervinho and Theo Walcott flanking Robin van Persie.
On paper, Arsenal should win this. In reality, one can’t help but have doubts. This side has betrayed our faith so many times already this season. Arsene often speaks about the length of time it takes for the team to regain confidence. Arguably, it will take even longer for the fans to regain confidence in the team. Only once that happens, and the healing process is complete, will the Emirates become the fortress it ought to be.
Let’s hope that process starts today.