By Declan Taylor
You could be forgiven for forgetting that this is only Sunderland’s second season back in the Premier League.
After winning the Coca-Cola Championship in 2007, Roy Keane’s men looked as though they had never been gone as they coasted to a respectable 15th-place finish while the other two promoted sides, Birmingham and Derby, were both duly relegated.
The Black Cats splashed the cash in the summer, anxious to avoid the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’, and their start to the campaign has been encouraging yet unspectacular with seven points from their opening six games.
We caught up with Ian Laws from the Sunderland Echo to get the low-down on the new-look Sunderland ahead of Saturday’s encounter.
STORY SO FAR
“I think there is a continuing optimism about the place, they have signed 10 players and they are still bedding in. Until they find their feet fully you will not know where Sunderland are going to go this season.
“To bring 10 players into the squad is quite a dramatic change. It is something we have become used to with Roy Keane because he does sign a lot of players. They have done alright though; they had one really disappointing game which was the home defeat to Manchester City where they fell away badly. Other than that they have been quite competitive.
“With Keane being a winner, he will celebrate success in terms of getting into Europe via the Premier League which is the ultimate ambition. He has tried to keep a cap on things by saying that they just want to be competing with that middle group of teams rather than aiming for the top five or six clubs.
“It would be good for Sunderland if they could stay away from the relegation slots and not have the anxiety that they had last season. Really they just want to have quite a boring season so there is not a lot to worry about.
“Don’t get me wrong, the supporters were very happy to avoid relegation but just surviving isn’t really all the Sunderland fans want because they crave the success that has eluded the club for so many years now.
“You have to remember that it was 1973 when they last won anything proper. If Sunderland can perhaps progress in the cups this season - they are still in the Carling Cup and will hope to get through the next round at home to Blackburn - and consolidate in the Premier League they will accept that but just scraping survival is not really a success for Sunderland.”
MAN OF THE MOMENT
“It is only Keane’s second season in the Premier League so I am not sure he is an established boss yet. He will be looking at four or five years at that level before he can say boldly that he is established in the Premier League.
“I think he is learning more and more what he needs to do to get his squad in the right shape. He has brought better players into the club and he is building quite a large and experienced squad now. I think the longer Sunderland stay in the Premier League the stronger they will get.
“They get good backing from the boardroom and I think they will become a competitive outfit alongside your Aston Villas and your Blackburns. The teams that might just break into the top six in the next two or three years.”
THE ONE TO WATCH
“I think they are still trying to get the best out of Djibril Cisse. He has shown that he has still got his pace in the games that he has played. He has looked a touch isolated at times when he has played on his own in a 4-5-1 because he likes people to feed off.
“Maybe doing all the selfless miles, chasing the ball into corners and being an outlet for the team doesn’t suit him as much. There is potential there for Cisse to contribute importantly. If he can get to double figures in goals that would be a huge bonus but it is just trying to find the right creation around him. With Kenwyne Jones yet to come back into the mix, they should have a pretty strong front-line.
“His best chances have been in away games and Sunderland’s main problem is possibly that they aren’t creating enough. They have looked relatively solid but they are not creating enough chances. With the players that they do have, Kieran Richardson, Andy Reid, Steed Malbranque, they should have players that can unlock defences.
“When you talk about Cisse, they went one up front in the last home game and it didn’t quite suit him. He gets a bit isolated in those situations, a bit frustrated. He likes the ball a bit closer to him rather than chasing lost causes so it could be a problem for him. If they can get a partner for him I think he will profit quite well.”
“They have new players in just about every department in the squad. They have brought in three new defenders in the back four, although George McCartney has been here before. They have brought in Anton Ferdinand and Pascal Chimbonda so there have been big changes in defence.
“The midfield has got Steed Malbranque and Teemu Tainio when he is fit. There has been a lot of changes since Keane got to the club and it is a completely new Sunderland. These things don’t gel overnight but the points return they have got so far is relatively satisfying considering the changes that have been made
“They can attract these players from good clubs. It is often said that Sunderland will not attract players because the best players want to be in the south or with the big clubs. But Keane has brought players in from London this summer, he has brought established Premier League performers and internationals. These are guys that the club and the supporters are hoping can push them on to the next level. “
“Kenwyne Jones’ absence has been a blow because he was the main man last season. He is such an important player for Sunderland. You talk about target-men in the Premier League and some good players said last season that there are few better than Kenwyne at this level. John Terry came out last season and said that he was about the toughest player that he had come up against in terms of an aerial threat.
“Any team deprived of that kind of player is going to miss him. He should be back this month and that is a very positive sign but it is then another test for Roy Keane and the team to see how well he can blend with all the new signings.”
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
“I don’t think Sunderland are fooled by the Hull defeat. They know Arsenal are a slick side and they have just beaten the Portuguese champions comfortably. Sunderland will not be thinking that Arsenal have gone soft and they will know that if there is a bad time to face a big side it is possibly after a defeat.
“Arsenal will be busting a gut to do well that’s for sure. It just shows that league is always going to be competitive and the Premier League is going to be a competition where any side can beat anyone in any given match.”
“I think the only way to go about facing Arsenal is to play your own game and get in their faces as much as possible and pass the ball. Sunderland have got ball players so they are not struggling for people who can pass it around a bit.
“Arsenal are always going to be favourites. A top-four side are always going to be favourites going into any game and there is no grumbles about that but Sunderland have looked OK. If they can put their form together you never know, they looked OK against Liverpool on the opening day of the season and they did alright against Villa at the weekend.
“They are not too far off and if they put it all together then I don’t see why they cannot get a draw although I think a win might be a bit too much to ask for. Then again, why not? It’s the Premier League and these are good players at this level.”Copyright 2015 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 3 Oct 2008