Like a lower league side strutting their stuff in the latter rounds of the FA Cup, Steve Bruce is transforming his Sunderland side into one of the biggest upset merchants in the Premiership. The Black Cats’ latest scalp was a 1-0 victory at home to Arsenal. Bruce’s side have now taken 7 points from a possible 12 this season against the big four. Sunderland sit in 8th at the moment, below Liverpool who have taken just 3 points from 9 against their rivals, and above Stoke in 9th who have come away empty handed in all of their three matches against the league’s elite this term.
For the first hour or so, Sunderland got stuck into their opponents on this grim, dark Saturday afternoon. The likes of Kieran Richardson and the instrumental Lorik Cana frustrated their opponents with tough tackling and tracking back across all quarters of The Stadium of Light’s pitch. Wenger’s side had to resort to speculative long-rage efforts and lofted balls across the box and were not allowed space to be clever and showcase their usually dazzling passing. Without Robin Van Persie, who was injured this weekend with Holland, the Londoners lacked a more predatory centre-forward who could manufacture space for himself and react to high crosses quicker than centre-halves. The match was a tight, gritty affair with few moments of class or skill, both elements clearly missing as Steed Malbranque ballooned a few left footed half volleys into row Z for the home side, as he failed to make use of a generous amount of space on the wing. With 71 minutes gone, the game was still yearning for a goal, and it came from arguably the best Summer signing this season, Darren Bent. A Stephen Reid corner was initially nodded well wide by Bent as the ball ricocheted kindly off of his teammate Frazier Campbell. The deflection feel fortuitously in Bent’s path for him lunge at the ball and stab home into the roof of the net from 6 yards out. Wenger might inquire as to why the ball was allowed to take two ping-pong like touches before Bent grasped his opportunity. No blue shirt managed to get anything a meaningful intervernsion after the ball was stroked into the danger area from the original corner.
Arsenal deserve credit where it is due and did not let their spirit become deflated after Sunderland netted. Andrei Arshavin found an avenue to run into between napping Sunderland defenders and stretched his diminutive 5 foot 7 frame as much as he could, but only found side netting from close range as he slid in hopefully. The away side should have had a penalty as they threw everything forward in the dying minutes. Carlos Vela controlled the ball neatly after a cross darted in low by Bacary Sagna and was then bundled over unceremoniously by Campbell. This was made even more of a bitter pill to swallow as it was Campbell who scurried away towards the halfway line with the ball at his feet and was then the victim of an ill advised, dangerous lunge by Armand Traore. Traore was lucky to escape with only a yellow produced by Alan Wiley.
48 year old Bruce has this season showed that he is an expert in creating blueprints on how to play the bigger sides. Sunderland did all the ugly jobs well and hassled the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song in midfield. Song and particularly Fabregas were impotent for large parts of the match and Bruce’s defenders did not always dive in, but stayed with their marksmen and cut off angles and always knew what the next passes would be. It is clear that Wenger’s side are not able to settle comfortably into midfield battles. Sunderland took control of the game, look assured on the ball, and they may not have created much but scored when it counted. Bent is a gem in an otherwise modest squad and beach ball or no beach ball will win Sunderland an invaluable number of cheap points this season.
Arsenal will feel aggrieved not to have won this match as they did have chances. The Emirates Stadium side are still a moderately realistic bet for the title and have a game in hand over most of their counterparts. Arshavin is capable of providing magic no other player in this league could muse of and Van Persie guarantees goals. The one thing Wenger would not have wished for was a talisman like Van Persie to be unavailable for such a tricky encounter. Sunderland forced Arsenal to play the ball in the air and the presence and height of 6 foot 3 Van Persie and 6 foot 4 Nicklas Bendter were greatly missed. Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky, Arshavin and Eduardo provide a plethora of mouth watering attacking options but are all some way short of 6 foot. When Arsenal are not allowed to stroke the ball majestically along the turf as if it is their divine right, against mean defences like Sunderland matches may crumble beneath them.
Sunderland have shown they can beat the best in the league and in some cases the best in Europe and now must deem anything other than a top half finish a failure. It does however remain to be seen whether the North-East club can turn disappointing results against ostensibly lesser sides such as West Ham United, Burnley and Hull City into maximum points.