Wins at the Stadium of Light, from where they’ve now emerged victorious on their last four visits, are hardly the kind of red-letter results upon which to base sweeping statements that all is well. But having avoided the ignominy of posting their lowest points tally at this stage of any campaign under Arsene Wenger thanks to a win the visitors made hard work of, there’s a case to be made that results will continue on their recent upward curve. The imminent return of Theo Walcott, an un-used substitute on his return to the squad after a 10-month injury absence, can only bolster such hopes.
“People say we’re not playing our best football,” Mathieu Flamini, the Arsenal midfielder, said. “It’s been tough, but if you look where we are, we’re in the top six, and hopefully on course for the next stage of the Champions League, so it’s not been a bad start this season. We know we can play better but you can’t do any more than win. Now we must make sure we work hard enough to get back in to the title race.”
Hard work is one thing, but giving Chelsea an eight-point start and a game in hand before the leaders’ trip to Manchester United makes that task positively Herculean.
Wenger acknowledges his side has some catching up to do after Sunderland were disposed of in a way all too rarely seen so far from the Gunners this season.
“We’re six points off where we should have been,” the Frenchman stressed in the wake of a win that was only sealed in stoppage time.
Re-calibrating slightly, he added: “Well, let’s say we’re four points off, because we’ve lost only one game since the start of the season. Saying that, we’ve only won three, so I think we’ve dropped too many points.”
Sunderland were overly-hospitable hosts, providing Alexis Sanchez with goals in either half, first profiting from an abject Wes Brown back-pass to sprint 30 yards before confidently opening the scoring on the half hour.
The Chilean took his seasonal goal tally to eight from close range at the death thanks to a calamitous miscommunication between Will Buckley and Vito Mannone, the former Arsenal goalkeeper.
“I keep repeating myself, but if you give goals away against top teams you’re going to get punished,” Adam Johnson, the Sunderland midfielder said. While posing virtually no attacking threat throughout and gifting two goals, the hosts did at least restore a modicum of pride in the wake of last week’s eight-goal humiliation at Southampton.
Confidence might take rather longer to be restored, and clearly, pride doesn’t convert to points as a repeat of last season’s grim battle for survival looms larger with each passing defeat. Sunderland have won just once in the league this season, and Johnson added: “It’s still very early to be talking about relegation. But if you lose three in a row in this league, you’re in amongst it, anyway.”
Defeat at Crystal Palace on Monday would be their third in a row and Sunderland supporters are fearing the worst.
SUNDERLAND (4-1-4-1): Mannone 4; Vergini 4, O’Shea 5, Brown 4, van Aanholt 5; Cattermole 6; Johnson 5 (Altidore 73, 4), Larsson 5, Rodwell 5 (Gomez 73, 4), Buckley 5; Fletcher 4 (Wickham 50, 5).
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Szczesny 7; Chambers 7, Mertesacker 7, Monreal 7, Gibbs 7 (Bellerin 73, 6); Arteta 6 (Ramsey 87, 5), Flamini 7; Oxlade-Chamberlain 5 (Rosicky 90, 5), Sanchez 8, Cazorla 6; Welbeck 6.
Referee: Kevin Friend 5.