Setting aside the record-breaking derby day win and the recent revival under Sam Allardyce, the 2015-16 campaign has been a tough slog so far for Sunderland.
But throughout the ongoing battle for survival has been one consistent, shining light. Step forward Yann M’Vila.
Signed on a season-long loan from Russian Premier League side Rubin Kazan in the summer, the Frenchman has been the signing of the season.
Without question. And we’re only in December.
Convinced to revive his career in the North East by former boss Dick Advocaat, tough-tackling M’Vila has been a beacon of hope for many in the annual fight against the drop.
M’Vila is much more than a midfield enforcer though, he is arguably the most complete midfielder the Black Cats have had in their ranks for many a season.
Whether it be the ability to pick out a team-mate from distance, produce a pin-point corner or free-kick routine, M’Vila has it all.
Well, almost. The 25-year-old’s goalscoring record – one goal in 16 league and cup appearances this season– could be improved.
But he wasn’t brought in to score goals, he was added to the ranks to add some steel, some bite and determination and to help dictate play from the middle.
And he has lived up to that.
Against Arsenal, he was Sunderland’s man of the match, and there were a few contenders despite the result as Allardyce’s men produced one of their best performances.
Ahead of kick-off, M’Vila’s value had been highlighted by Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal chief admitting he wanted to sign the midfielder when he was at former club Rennes.
Was Wenger carefully letting M’Vila know that his future could still lie at the Emirates Stadium?
Perhaps, he wouldn’t be the first manager to do so.
Wenger said: “He had a few off-the-field problems, but it looks like now he’s stabilised and he’s, of course, a very good player who is a regular player in the national team in France.”
Arsenal have many attributes, but a constant accusation levelled at them is they lack a midfield enforcer.
M’Vila, capped 22 times by France, would be the perfect fit in North London.
Sunderland fans will be hoping his time in the North East extends beyond next summer though, with the Black Cats having the option to convert the loan deal into a permanent switch.
But the Frenchman’s displays for the Black Cats are attracting suitors and the vultures are ready to swoop.
Liverpool have also been credited with more than a passing interest in him.
M’Vila edged the man-of-the-match award, but there were several other performances worthy of note, Ola Toivonen, M’Vila’s midfield partner, being one.
The Swede was back in the starting line-up after an injury to Lee Cattermole and Toivonen did not let anyone down.
It made a pleasant change, given Toivonen’s poor start to life at the Stadium of Light.
Signed in the summer from Rennes, again by Advocaat on a season-long loan, Toivonen had made just seven starts prior to Saturday and failed to shine in any of them.
But against Arsenal, the 29-year-old enjoyed his best performance before being subbed after an hour, his recent lack of football catching up with him.
While he was on the pitch he impressed, playing clever first-time passes when Sunderland counter-attacked and doing his job defensively.
Toivonen had a hand in the goal too.
From M’Vila’s free-kick, the Swede made a near-post run before the ball eventually went in past Petr Cech courtesy of Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud.
Toivonen ran off celebrating, arms aloft, even though he was nowhere near the ball.
Perhaps it was a clever dummy?
Perhaps not, but he was again involved in the second half, flicking on M’Vila’s corner to the back post where Steven Fletcher couldn’t quite poke the ball home.
Toivonen and M’Vila were at the heart of everything good about Sunderland’s play.
M’Vila has been consistently good all season. Toivonen needs to show he can match those levels again.