An international break usually strikes fear into us, especially when the break comes after a streak of solid performances from the Gunners. That fear has been justified on a number of occasions. For example, during 2012-13, just after the encouraging 3:1 victory against West Ham, Theo Walcott picked up an injury against the mighty San Marino. Walcott’s absence was very noticed – first we lost at Norwich 1:0 and then Schalke won comfortably at the Emirates in the Champions’ League. In 2010-11, Van Persie missed almost the whole first half of the season due to an injury he had picked against Italy.
This time, Tomas Rosicky picked a hamstring injury against Italy and it is still unknown when The Little Mozart will return. He has been one of the most determined members of the squad so far, he replaced Mikel Arteta in terms of leadership and experience in the midfield. 33-year-old Czech midfielder will miss the clash against Sunderland.
However, there is a lot of excitement among Gooners over how our midfield is going to look on Saturday. Ramsey will return to the club after two defeats Wales suffered against Macedonia (2:1, Ramsey converted a penalty that he had earned) and Serbia (0:3). Wilshere didn’t impress against Ukraine but the most important thing is he didn’t pick up any kind of injury. Özil and Cazorla will probably share the creative burden between themselves. They might be relieved with the fact Sunderland are no longer led by Martin O’Neill who ordered hard tackles on our midfielders last time when we played against The Black Cats.
It was one of the best displays from our team in the second half of last season. Granted, it was just a 1:0 victory but the narrow margin happened only because of poor finishing from Giroud and Walcott who should have added a few more goals to the score-line. Carl Jenkinson got himself sent off for a second bookable foul after an hour so Aaron Ramsey had to play right back for the rest of the match but our defence led by the brilliant Bacary Sagna and helped by safe hands of Szczesny managed to stop all attacks from the hosts. Referee Anthony Taylor didn’t have the best game of his career but he had to wait six months to have his worst.
This time, we could have a tight encounter. Paolo Di Canio is an Italian coach and the profile of his players suggests that he might opt for an Italian approach for this match – a tight defence and exploitation of their opponents’ defensive mistakes. Lee Cattermole won’t be there to massacre our midfielders due to injury. This time, the defensive side of Sunderland’s midfield might be occupied by the South-Korean midfielder Ki Song-Yeung. Ki – who has been on loan from Swansea City – is a more elegant type of defensive midfielder than Cattermole (then again, an elephant in a Sunderland shirt would have been more elegant!) and will try to help Sunderland attack with his through balls and neat passing.
Sebastian Larsson, a former Arsenal player, is one of the best dead-ball specialists in the Premiership. His right-footed free-kicks and corners can cause all sorts of troubles for opponents which means fouls around our D-area should be avoided.
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It remains unknown who is going to get Di Canio’s trust in attack. Jozy Altidore played a blinder at Koševo last month using both his physical and technical skills when United States won against Bosnia-Herzegovina 4:3 and scored an impressive hat-trick including a top-drawer free-kick against Asmir Begović. Steven Fletcher was the only attacking strength of Sunderland last season (apart from Stephane Sessegnon who left the club) but he was injured for a long time. There is also a possibility that Borini might get a chance as well. Connor Wickham might be the first choice after all – he has scored twice this season already (both goals in Capital One Cup).
So far, our next opponents haven’t been the most impressive side in the league. They have collected just one point so far and they might struggle this season to save themselves from a relegation battle despite expensive signings like Giaccherini and Altidore or at least before their new signings adopt Di Canio’s methods.
Still, an international hangover is a factor that we should never underestimate given how many international players Arsenal have. There is also the unavoidable signing of Özil that should give us an impetus and that doesn’t exclude an obligation of all players to give their 100 percent on the pitch just because “there is a world-class player on the pitch to rescue them”. Özil might take a game or two to settle in the Premiership and that means Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud will have to keep up like they have done since our first victory of the season. Let’s also not forget that there is a Champions’ League game waiting just round the corner. The return of Thomas Vermaelen from injury might be another important reinforcement (yes, like a new signing!) given that we don’t have too many defenders to rotate.
If we win against Sunderland, it will be our fifth victory in a row in all competitions, so the good atmosphere around the club and players will stick for a while. A goal or two from Theo Walcott might start a streak of goals for the speedy Englishman who is yet to score in this campaign but has looked lively so far.