By Giuseppe Muro
Despite losing their last four games, Sunderland sit eighth in the Premier League, just two points behind sixth-placed Liverpool.
Darren Bent’s 95th-minute equaliser pegged Arsenal back at the Stadium of Light earlier in the season, so should Arsène Wenger’s side expect a similarly tough encounter on Saturday?
We spoke to Graham Anderson of the Sunderland Echo to get an opposition perspective on the weekend’s game.
THE STORY SO FAR
It’s hard to say [why they have lost their last four Premier League games] because each defeat has been slightly different from the others. There was only one game that they have played rank badly in and that was the Everton game last week. Prior to that, the three defeats, to Spurs, Chelsea and Stoke, they actually played quite well. Against Spurs and Stoke, Sunderland were the better team. So each defeat has been a different type of defeat. You can’t simply say they’ve played poorly in any particular uniform way.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
The one area where they have got a problem is defensively. Scoring goals hasn’t been a problem for them, it’s at the back that has been their Achilles heel and especially from set-pieces. It’s been a regular problem for them over the last month or so. Set-pieces just seem to cause them real problems and it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why. In their first 22 games, they kept 11 clean sheets and that really put them up the table but, for some unknown reason, they’ve started throwing goals in.
This is something that Steve Bruce doesn’t like to point to but they do have a serious injury problem. Perhaps the obvious one is Michael Turner, a centre half who is very commanding and someone who could have stopped a few of those set-pieces going in. He’s been out since November. Lee Cattermole, the young captain, is a tigerish ball winner who has been out since before Christmas. Fraizer Campbell, who was the star of pre-season, has been out since August with a cruciate ligament injury. Danny Welbeck was in fantastic form before he was injured around Christmas time. Those are the obvious ones but there are a few others, like first-choice goalkeeper Craig Gordon who has recently succumbed to a knee injury and is probably out for the weekend. So there are quite a lot of first-team players who have been missing. Key players in key positions. Sunderland are depleted in certain specific areas and that has been a problem.
I don’t think Darren Bent has been particularly missed, simply because he hasn’t reached anywhere near the heights that he reached last season. He scored exactly 50 per cent of Sunderland’s goals last season and that gives you an indication of how important he was. This season, Sunderland have looked to play a slightly different way which didn’t play entirely to his strengths. But it does suit Asamoah Gyan. Sunderland will probably set up 4-4-1-1 with Gyan as a lone striker up front and he has played as a lone striker for most of his career so he is used to that. He has settled in very well but there is no doubt that he could have done with more support. When Sunderland travelled to Chelsea and won 3-0, Welbeck and Gyan were in tandem and played outstanding stuff. So Bent is not particularly missed as things stand but Gyan could do with some help after settling in well.
THE MAN IN CHARGE
I’ve seen a few managers come and go in my time and, to me, Bruce has the best chance of success at Sunderland Football Club since Peter Reid. The last successful Sunderland side was the team that Reid brought up [to the Premier League] in the late 90s with the team of [former Gunner] Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips. If Reid had been given the cash at that time I think he would have been able to take them to a different level. But that’s not a problem with Bruce. He’s got a billionaire owner, a chairman he gets on well with and they have formed a good team. Every manager will make mistakes but I think Sunderland fans have been really impressed.