Pre-Match Report

Arsenal v Sunderland - Match Preview

Emirates Stadium

By Richard Clarke

Clarity can only help sporting performance.

Understanding, organisation and focus allow top athletes to produce peak performances at key moments.

Just look at Britain's Olympians.

Four years of precise, well-funded planning were distilled into perhaps only a few minutes of sporting action.

But upon those moments a nation's sporting legacy will hopefully be laid.

No Premier League football club will have total clarity until the transfer window closes but Arsenal's position is immeasurably better than 12 months ago.

They start they season on Saturday with three major signings in, one major departure and an assurance of Champions League football.

Robin van Persie's exit should be a solemn affair for every decent-minded Arsenal fan but his successors are clear - Thomas Vermaelen will lead the team out and Lukas Podolski will lead the attack.

Yes, Alex Song may also depart the Club - at Friday's press conference Arsene Wenger said "it could go either way" - however the manager added that a replacement would be sought.

You would expect further movement before September 1 but Arsenal's footholds are firmer at the start of this season.

Last term, four of their 10 Premier League defeats came in the first seven games - before the late acquisitions had bedded in. Euro 2012 and the Olympics have been a distraction this summer but the players returned from their pre-season training camp in Germany with a crucial camaraderie packed in their mental baggage.

Meanwhile, if the first goal in Cologne is anything to go by, Steve Bould's influence among the coaching set-up is already being felt. Per Mertesacker's near-post flick was Bould circa 1991.

So although the manager spent his press conference fielding questions about Van Persie and Song, amid his answers there was obvious optimism. Wenger is not a betting man but he did have advice for one journalist who had been offered 14/1 on Arsenal winning the title.

"In your position I would [take] it," smiled Wenger.

"It is down to performances on the pitch of course and the bookmakers can change. But we believe in ourselves and I believe in our quality and spirit.

"We had a terrible start last year. But it was the first time in a long time that we had been like that. I believe it was linked with the fact we had a Champions League qualifier that was on our mind. We were also disrupted by transfers as well.

"So I am confident that we are settled, organised, focused and have what it takes to get through."

But can the Arsenal supporters dare to dream?

"I feel our fans can be very ambitious," Wenger went on. "We want to be more of a team than the other teams and want to play our football.

"They can have every single ambition to win the Premier League and therefore let's start well. That will raise the level of ambition and confidence as well.

"We have a massive challenge of course, because we have bought three players. Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla have all been very promising in pre-season games and we have our injured players coming back. Diaby is available again and Wilshere, Sagna are not far. There is a very positive mentality in the group and a very ambitious one as well. The Premier League is the Premier League and on Saturday we start playing for points. Therefore we want to be ready."

The team news is good. The short-term absences - Laurent Koscielny (calf) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (ankle) - should be back for Stoke. The medium-term absences - Jack Wilshere (ankle), Tomas Rosicky (tendon), Bacary Sagna (leg) and Emmanuel Frimpong (knee) - are all progressing well.

The likes of Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Song face fitness tests but their knocks are short-term at worst.

Sunderland have made few changes from the squad that finished 13th last season. However the return of loanee striker Nicklas Bendtner to Arsenal has left a void up front. Martin O'Neill has brought in much-travelled veteran Louis Saha on a one-year deal and is still trying to tempt Steven Fletcher from Wolves.

"Saha!" joked Wenger. "He always looks to go somewhere where we play against him.

"Actually I like Saha, he is a great player and Sunderland are a team who always give you a big problem. They are a hard-working team with good spirit and attitude.

"We expect that, so on our side I believe it is important on the first day that you are not too nervous and you can focus on your game. You can't forget that if you need to be patient, you need to be patient. They might defend very well and try to get us on the break so we need not to rush our game.

"It is always a dense midfield and they are good on the counter-attack, so it is important for us to deal with that. We have to create our own space.

"It is difficult to play Sunderland at any moment in the season and at the moment we are physically not completely at our peak so we need to be intelligent and patient."

Patience was the key last season - for everyone. An angst-ridden start left Arsenal playing catch-up but Wenger's late signings manfully hauled the team back up to a respectable third-place finish.

Van Persie's goals were crucial. They made the difference numerous times.

But then you could argue that the Dutchman was fulfilling the role vacated by a certain Thierry Henry. Ironically, the Frenchman slid home that crucial late winner at Sunderland the last time the two teams met in the Premier League.

Wenger remembered: "I said to Thierry Henry after the game that goal might get us the Champions League and it did because those two points were vital in the end."

It was Henry's last meaningful touch as an Arsenal player but as influential as any goal last term and Wenger's recollections came on Friday, Thierry's 35th birthday.

It just proves that great football clubs can survive the loss of great players and even immortals can get older.

Goodbye Robin, thanks for everything.

Hello, Santi, Lukas and Olivier, welcome to the new season.

Let's go and win something.


Team news:

Arsenal: Koscielny (calf), Oxlade-Chamberlain (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Rosicky (tendon), Sagna (leg), Frimpong (knee)

Sunderland: Vaughan (groin), Bardsley (ankle), Brown (knee)

Match Stats:

Arsenal are unbeaten in their last 11 opening-day fixtures

Their goalscoring record for opening-day fixtures in the Premier League era is: F38, A18

This is the first time Arsenal have kicked off at home since 2008

Arsenal have lost just one of their last 17 league games against Sunderland

The Gunners recouped the most points from losing positions of any team in the 2011/12 Premier League

Arsène Wenger's side didn't win a single penalty at the Emirates in the 2011/12 Premier League

Twenty-eight per cent of the goals Sunderland conceded were headers, the highest proportion in the top flight last season

Arsenal scored more goals in the opening 15 minutes than any other team in the 2011/12 Premier League (12)

Arsenal have won none of their last three Premier League games at home (D2 L1)

Sunderland have won none of their last seven Premier League away matches (D3 L4)

Martin O'Neill has only won one of 16 Premier League meetings with Arsène Wenger as a manager (W1 D6 L9): a 2-0 win at the Emirates with Aston Villa in November 2008


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