By Declan Taylor
Sometimes the loss of a high-profile manager can throw a club into turmoil. Not Sunderland.
The Black Cats dealt with Roy Keane’s sudden December departure with admirable cool - transforming from exciting yet enigmatic to resilient and hard-to-beat.
With only eight points between the bottom 10 clubs, relegation still looms large for half of the Premier League, including Sunderland. Although encouraging displays under new boss Ricky Sbragia suggest that the Wearsiders will have enough to eventually steer clear.
Fronted by the gifted Kenwyne Jones, Sunderland travel to Emirates Stadium on Saturday in search of their first away points against a ‘big four’ club this season. We spoke to Ian Laws of the Sunderland Echo for his opinions on Sbragia’s impact, the importance of the Black Cats’ strike duo and an outsider’s impression of Arsenal.
THE STORY SO FAR
“They have not been in full flow but they are hard to beat. They are still conceding the odd frustrating goal that Ricky has put down to a lack of concentration. Not necessarily the defence but the whole team not being switched on for 90 minutes. That has been noticeable and the performances have been slightly patchy. They had an important run where they collected seven points out of nine and they’ve got a gap now between the relegation zone. They are going into two really hard games now; after the Emirates they travel to Anfield. While it looks quite comfortable at the moment it might not be as good in the next couple of games
“They got a couple of wins away from home last season at just the right time at Aston Villa and Fulham which changed the complexion of the league for them. Their Stadium of Light form hasn’t been as strong as last season but the bulk of the points still come at home and that advantage is important to them. They have been quite competitive away from home without being able to get enough wins. They should have got a victory at Fulham and they should have beaten Middlesbrough and Newcastle. There have been a lot of games where they let the opponents off the hook and it is this that Ricky needs to address.”
THE MAN IN CHARGE
“He is still bedding in at the moment, but he’s had the best part of three months since Roy Keane left in the early part of December. When he was put in as caretaker manager he did seem a bit reticent about it at first and did see himself as just the caretaker. But when Sunderland went through the list of available candidates they realised that Ricky was doing a decent job and he was popular in the camp so they decided to give him his chance. I think he has taken it quite well and they’ve eased away from the relegation zone and there’s a happy, confident air about them at the moment.”
“Tal Ben Haim and Calum Davenport have settled in well but they haven’t played yet. They haven’t played for their parent clubs for a few weeks but Ricky seems happy that their fitness is quite good. He was considering playing one of them in the last game but opted against it. They are two experienced central defenders in a time where Anton Ferdinand and Danny Collins are really in form so I don’t know if he’ll change the central defence. There is a suggestion that Ben Haim could come on for his debut this weekend at right back. I think he might have wanted to get a couple more in – a midfielder or a back-up striker – and there was a discussion with Spurs about Darren Bent. I think he’s quite satisfied that he has got reasonable cover for the rest of the season.”
THE MAN OF THE MOMENT
“Kenwyne Jones is very important. Sunderland turned down big money from Spurs in January for him. The deal was worth close to £20million with all the add-ons considered which, in today’s market, is quite an impressive amount. But they kept him and they gave him a better offer because they realised the potential is there to have a special player. He seems to have the lot; he’s big, he’s strong, he’s quick. He is not just a tall guy who heads it, he is quite decent on the floor. He has still got work to do on his game but he is starting to become very important to the side and his goals have come at a good time. Both him and Djibril Cisse are getting goals and that is Sunderland’s brightest prospect at the moment.”
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
“They are a team in transition I think it’s safe to say. They have been robbed of players through injury and have perhaps lacked a cutting edge of past Arsenal teams. That said, they can still pass the legs off you and if you allow them time and space then they’ll murder teams. Sunderland will try and stop Arsenal doing that and Ricky will try to play the game in Arsenal’s half as much as possible.
“He knows there’ll be chances for Arsenal so it will be about Sunderland taking their chances rather than Arsenal not getting a chance. I’m sure Arsenal will come again but I personally don’t see them getting in the top four this season. Even though Aston Villa aren’t as sophisticated a side, they are getting the results.”
“From a personal point of view I would hope to see Cisse and Jones together. Of course from a manager’s point of view he isn’t going to say exactly what he’ll do. His first game in charge was at Man United where he ‘parked the bus’ across the back. They sat deep, tried to get away with it and suck it up. They almost got away with it in the end. However, he believes that Sunderland have come on since then and they can be a bit more positive than that now. I would think 4-4-2 is their best chance of a result because with Cisse and Jones in the side there is always the chance of a goal.
“They tend to go to these big grounds with a bit of a bunker mentality and sit in. They start with a goalless draw and try to hold that. I think the teams that do well against the top four try to have a bit of go, just like Hull did.”Copyright 2017 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