This weekend sees the return of Premier League football and all thehighs and lows that it brings. Sunday sees Sunderland visiting Arsenalwith both clubs struggling to find the form expected of thempre-season. Some reporters claim that both clubs are in turmoil, somefans agree. I'm sure that many Sunderland fans over the past decade orso would have given their left arm to be more like Arsenal; it's ashame that we've waited until they have their worst to the season for58 years to match them. For whatever reason there are a number ofparallels that can be drawn between the two teams this year.
1. Squad RestructureBoth clubs have seen a bit of an overhaul of their squad since lastseason. Arsenal have arguably sold two of their best players from lastseason, with both Fabregas and Nasri beign tempted to pastures new insearch of trophies and the lucrative deals. Whilst at Sunderland wesaw the departure of Jordan Henderson and Assamoah Gyan. Even thedefender that seemed to split fans down the middle was sold (forArsenal this was Gael Clichy, for Sunderland, Anton Ferdinand).
With the money generated from these sales Arsenal have reinvestedheavily in their squad – in have come Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (anexciting young prospect at England U21 level, much like our very ownConnor Wickham), Andre Santos and the experienced Per Mertesacker havebeen brought in to try and improve a weak defence (much as O’Shea andBrown have been brought into ours). Their midfield has seen thearrival of Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun – both with bags of PremierLeague experience and undoubted skill, with a reputation for scoring agoal or two (much like the arrivals of Seb Larsson and Craig Gardenerat the Stadium of Light). Whilst upfront they have invested inGervinho and a little known Korean named Park Chu-young – ok so Iprobably don’t need to state the obvious comparison here to Bendtnerand Ji Dong Won?
I think it’s maybe fair to say that with so many new faces coming intothe squads and adapting to a new style of play with new personnel,that things are taking a little longer than hoped to gel into place,which neatly leads us on to a second parallel.
2. A Slow Start to the SeasonAfter relative success last season for both clubs – Arsenal reaching acup final and securing Champions League qualification, whilstSunderland achieved a top half finish – many fans saw this season asbeing a chance for them to kick on again. However, with so many newfaces and with some tricky opening fixtures to the season both teamsfind themselves languishing uncomfortably in the lower half of theleague table hoping for a result in the next game which willkick-start their season. Defeats to intense derby rivals doesn’t helpmatters either.
3. Managers Under PressureWith a disappointing start to the campaign comes the inevitablepressure being heaped onto the managers. Arsène Wenger has beenuntouchable since his arrival at Arsenal with the fans heaping theirlove and admiration on him, however with the lack of signings in keyareas of the park over recent years frustration has been growing. Forsome time now fans and pundits alike have been stating the obvious –they need a good keeper (like Given) , a solid defender (like Cahillor Samba) and a target man capable of banging in the goals when theinevitable injury hits Van Persie’s season. It’s fair to say thatSteve Bruce has never had the admiration of the fans but as we hit thetransfer market running this pre-season I think it’s fair to say thatexpectations and belief began to grow. However Bruce also decided toignore the pleas of the fans to find a much needed left sided playeror two.
With both teams separated by just one point in 15th and 16th positionsit appears that fans patience is being tested to the extreme. Bothsets of fans have let their feelings known. Both boards have giventheir backing to the man under fire.
4. A Sensibly Run ClubOne thing you have to admire about both clubs is that the board don’ttend to have knee-jerk reactions, they seem happy to give the managertime to put things right. They also seem to make a concerted effort tokeep respective clubs on a firm financial footing. They refuse to beheld to ransom by players, insisting on adhering to a necessary wagestructure to keep the books balanced. A sell to buy scenario appearsto be in place at both clubs which allows the sale of a high profileplayer to generate the purchase of 2 or 3 good quality squad playersin exchange. Although this might not always prove a popular decisionwith fans, in the long run it does make good business sense.
And so as we near the big game, the importance of this match is morecritical than anyone could have imagined at the start of the season.Just eight games in and already both managers are being reported asbeing ‘on the verge’ of being sacked. Personally I think both need alittle more time to get the team used to each other and firing on allcylinders. Hopefully this will be the game that Sunderland manages todo just that. However with so many close similarities I can onlyforesee one result – a draw, and status quo for another week. A draw,and another stay of execution for both managers. A draw, and anothersplit between fans of whether that can be seen as a positive result orfurther disappointment.
Whatever happens, you can be guaranteed of one thing. Both sets ofsupporters will turn up to the game hoping for a win and believingthis will be the one. After all, that is what being a football fan isall about isn’t it?