Since Sam Allardyce took charge of a beleaguered, fragile Sunderland, he has transformed one of the Premier League’s most porous sides into a tight-knit, defensively robust unit.
Six goals conceded at Everton aside, Sunderland have competed well in each of their games with Allardyce at the helm, conceding just twice in two 1-0 defeats, while keeping clean sheets in the three victories he has masterminded.
Next up to face the newly-built Sunderland wall are Arsenal, a club no stranger to building a team around a strong backline. I spoke to Jeremy Corbyn last week, and the Arsenal-supporting Labour leader cited the back four of Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn as something Allardyce will look to emulate and he’s right to expect a “highly defensive game from Sunderland”.
Rather than four, there will be five defenders blocking Arsenal’s route to goal. Since the aberration at Everton, the return to three central defenders has paid dividends for Allardyce and I’m sure he will be relishing the chance to park Younes Kaboul, John O’Shea and Sebastian Coates in front of an Arsenal forward line shorn of Alexis Sanchez, but still full of threat in the form of Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil.
Regardless of the depth of quality available to Arsene Wenger, the loss of Sanchez is huge. Corbyn predicted that Sunderland would be “spending the afternoon chasing Sanchez and Giroud” but thankfully at least one half of that duo will be missing.
The Chilean is a fantastic player and one that will be sorely missed. Allardyce is not exactly known for his shy and retiring ways and the absence of one of Arsenal’s best players will certainly increase his confidence of getting a result.
In fact, after Arsenal’s disappointing showing last week at Norwich City, Sunderland’s boss will fancy his side’s chances of snatching all three points. This is a fragile Arsenal side with an ever-growing injury list, in the midst of a wobbly patch of form. Sunderland on the other hand look more confident than they have done in months.
It might seem like wishful thinking, or even over-confidence, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Allardyce will see this as an opportunity to at least make it three clean sheets in a row.
He’ll be fully prepared to frustrate Wenger’s team by setting his own side up to repel any attempts at intricate passing around the box and as we’ve seen, there’s enough quality in this Sunderland side to hit teams on the break.
Composure will be paramount. On the rare occasions Sunderland do break out, the passing must be accurate and the finishing clinical.
Allardyce has options available to take chances, should they come his side’s way. He may be unable to pair Jermain Defoe and Steven Fletcher up front again, but he has the livewire Duncan Watmore, who will be desperate to play after scoring against Stoke City last week, while there’s also £20m of talent in Jeremain Lens and Fabio Borini to consider.
Ultimately, Sunderland’s chances rest on their ability to defend. In order for those players to have an impact, Sunderland must be solid at the back.
The art of defending is often overlooked, but it is to be to celebrated on Wearside. It was a backs to the wall performance that won Dick Advocaat’s side a point at the Emirates last season and a repeat showing of solidity should see Sunderland bring at least another clean sheet back to the Stadium of Light.