NUMBERS are dwindling in the defiant band of loyalists still subscribing to the “In Arsene We Trust” adage.
A second successive season of quick-fire elimination from the cup competitions, together with the increasing threat to 14 years of Champions League qualification, left journalists inevitably probing Arsene Wenger on his future in the post-match Stadium of Light press conference.
Former Sunderland boss Roy Keane branded the current crop the worst Arsenal side he’d ever seen and it was difficult to disagree after such a timid display on Wearside.
Let’s face it, any manager who believes in the pedigree of Johan Djourou has to be scrutinised.
But, while support in Wenger’s empire crumbles, Sunderland fans are swiftly learning to put their wholehearted faith in Martin O’Neill, no matter their initial concerns.
A team sheet which saw Stephane Sessegnon forced to plough a lone furrow up front had proved to be an effective ploy in registering away success in the battle grounds of Stoke and Peterborough.
But against an Arsenal side, vulnerable after their pasting in the San Siro, surely this was an opportunity to go for the jugular of the brittle Gunners, particularly with central defenders Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny on the sidelines?
Any doubts were dispelled though as O’Neill avoided the emotive trap of “going for it” with his cool-headed adoption of the 4-5-1 system proving to be a masterstroke in out-muscling Wenger’s side.
If ever there was a game for Lee Cattermole this was it.
Sunderland often missed the extra attacking presence of Fraizer Campbell as they looked for an outlet, even if Sessegnon’s work-rate as the sole frontman was phenomenal.
But Cattermole, along with the tireless Craig Gardner and Jack Colback, proved pivotal in ensuring Arsenal were continually knocked out of their stride by Sunderland’s physical approach.
To quote Corporal Jones, the Gunners “Don’t like it up ’em” and despite the whining and moaning from Wenger’s side when Sunderland slightly overstepped the mark, Arsenal became increasingly lacklustre in going for 50-50s.
Sunderland’s midfield wanted it far more and it was typified by Cattermole, who picked up the conductor’s baton again after his maestro performances prior to his hamstring injury.
The only blemish from the 23-year-old was a needless yellow card to take him to nine bookings for the campaign, although it was a small price to pay for bullying the Gunners out of genuine opportunities, other than Gervinho’s early chance.
Cattermole’s inclusion also saw Sunderland sitting deep, as they had done almost successfully against Arsenal seven days earlier, rather than taking the game to the opposition.
But there was a crucial difference from the league encounter and it proved pivotal, despite the urging of the decimated Stadium of Light crowd for the hosts to push further forward.
The injection of renewed energy into Sunderland’s ranks after a seven-day break, coupled with Arsenal’s trials in Milan, saw the Black Cats exploit their fresh legs.
They were quicker to press the Gunners and did so further up the pitch – forcing Arsenal to surrender possession uncharacteristically cheaply or commit ugly unforced errors.
Djourou was the chief culprit, although the Swiss international wasn’t helped by the constant re-jigging to a back four which took on an increasingly ragged tone.
Arsenal were barely more accomplished at the other end.
Sunderland were quick to regain their defensive shape and although some worried that it was inviting trouble, they should have had more faith in O’Neill.
Arsenal had plenty of the ball and were particularly laudable at going sideways or backwards, yet the magical defence-splitting pass barely materialised, such was the organisation and work-rate of Sunderland’s banks of four and five.
Even when Sunderland went one up and were comfortably holding Arsenal, there were still murmurings over whether the Black Cats should put the tie to bed by introducing Campbell and exploiting the space in behind the sky-high defensive line of the visitors.
It was a classic stick or twist situation for O’Neill, but it was the type of decision for which managers earn their corn.
The Black Cats boss got it spot on.
Perhaps an earlier entry for Campbell would have put Arsenal to the sword and they could have been facing a second rout in the space of three days.
But O’Neill realised Arsenal were increasingly losing their discipline at the back, testified by a series of lunges from Djourou, Bacary Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen, and gaps would appear for Sunderland to exploit on the counter-attack.
So it proved and once Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s tangled feet handed Sunderland a second goal with 12 minutes to go, the tie was decided.
The ultimate test of O’Neill’s credentials will come as he attempts to bring an end to Sunderland’s Everton jinx in the quarter-finals.
But those on the appallingly deserted Stadium of Light terraces at the weekend, received another lesson that you question O’Neill at your peril.