SUNDERLAND don’t seem to favour half measures.
A year ago, Steve Bruce was fretting over how to shoehorn eight new signings into his starting line-up for an opening day clash against an expensively-assembled Liverpool side.
This time around, it’s the polar opposite – Martin O’Neill’s transfer plotting remains a work in progress, with the side tomorrow overwhelmingly similar to the one that concluded last season.
Not that it’s particularly surprising that it has been this way with O’Neill.
For all the Sunderland boss would have ideally liked a frontman or two to be integrated into the fold during the pre-season campaign, he has made a habit throughout his managerial career of using every minute of the transfer window.
Although there have been moans and groans during Sunderland’s pre-season at both results and the lack of signings, O’Neill was always going to correct that by the end of August.
And in Louis Saha, O’Neill adds the first piece of firepower to Sunderland’s attack that will surely be further augmented before the deadline on August 31.
Whether Saha starts at the Emirates tomorrow is a moot point.
The Frenchman may have kept himself in shape over the summer, but he is devoid of match practice and the substitutes’ bench may prove a more likely opportunity for inclusion.
But it will be like that over the first three games for Sunderland as they induct new signings who still lack the required fitness.
Even Sunderland’s existing players face such a situation, as O’Neill ponders throwing Stephane Sessegnon into the heat of battle against one of the sides who have cast covetous eyes towards the Benin international.
Sessegnon is nowhere near peak condition after just three days back on the training field since shaking off an ankle problem and no pre-season outings under his belt.
But O’Neill will surely take a punt on the 28-year-old given his pivotal contribution – starkly highlighted by the meagre tally of just four goals in Sunderland’s friendly programme.
Were Sessegnon and a signed-and-sealed Saha fully fit, then they would surely be Sunderland’s front two tomorrow and may well be for the opening Stadium of Light clash against Reading in eight days’ time.
But with Saha off the pace, Connor Wickham injured and Fraizer Campbell toiling on his own up front during pre-season, O’Neill may have to reluctantly use Sessegnon as a lone striker and pack the midfield.
The composition of that central midfield trio has been made awkward, though, by the injuries to Phil Bardsley and Wes Brown.
Both John O’Shea and Carlos Cuellar can fill in at full-back, but they appear to have been O’Neill’s favoured central defensive pairing during pre-season and are now at the age where they are far more effective in the heart of defence.
That means O’Neill will have to utilise Kieran Richardson or Jack Colback at left-back and Craig Gardner or Ahmed Elmohamady on the opposite flank.
O’Neill also has a decision to make in goal, with Keiren Westwood arguably outshining Simon Mignolet during pre-season.
There is little to choose between the two international stoppers, but whoever gets the nod faces a daunting afternoon, despite the sale of Robin van Persie.
Although the Dutchman has found the net regularly against Sunderland, Arsene Wenger has suitably boosted his attacking ranks over the summer with Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla.
England duo Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are injury doubts after missing the 2-1 victory over Italy in midweek, but Arsenal have more than enough ammunition elsewhere.
The problem for Sunderland is whether they can sufficiently occupy Arsenal at the other end.
A Gunners defence missing Bakary Sagna and potentially Laurent Koscielny is hardly the most galling of rearguards.
Yet Sunderland endured such struggles with forward momentum during both the end of last season and in pre-season, that it is difficult to envisage the Black Cats threatening regularly.
At least, the signing of Saha is a step on the way to correcting that.
But next week’s clash with Reading, rather than tomorrow’s curtain-raiser, holds far more chance of Sunderland’s attack showing sufficient vigour to earn any rewards.
Verdict: Home win