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Gunners spiked by solid defence
WHATEVER worries Sunderland fans had after a largely inactive summer in the transfer market eased slightly in North London – temporarily at least.
After all this was a Black Cats squad which finished last season in desperate need of new life after winning just one of their previous 12 competitive games. The arrivals of two free agents, Louis Saha and Carlos Cuellar, have not been enough to inspire renewed optimism either.
But while an opening day goalless draw against a club fresh from spending almost £40m on three attacking talents further highlighted a shortage in forward-thinkers, it did provide a reminder of how organised Martin O'Neill has them.
Even without the departed Robin van Persie and Alex Song, Arsenal struggled to break in behind a Sunderland defence that included a Cuellar performance to justify O'Neill's keenness to sign him.
The Sunderland manager is the first to admit he will be spending most of the next 11 days trying to bring in “three or four” more players. He already knows, though, that defensively his squad is pretty sound, even if he may need a replacement for Kieran Richardson at left-back.
The draw at the Emirates has delivered plenty of belief early in the campaign for the Sunderland squad – even before Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson or whoever else arrives in the coming days. “We have a strong squad, we know that,” said Cuellar. “I think in the positions, like further forward, we need players in certain positions, we also know that. “But even if we don't bring in any more players we know we have international players here already. We look good but I think we could still be better.
“A few more players would help. If they come in, in two or threes, then the competition improves the team. If we get another two or three players then that will be better for everyone.”
Sunderland spent the vast majority of the second half camped in their own half protecting Simon Mignolet's goals, with Arsenal constantly probing in front of them looking to create something.
Even though the diminutive Santi Cazorla, a £16m purchase from Malaga, showed flashes in midfield to suggest he is going to light up the Premier League, Arsenal's inability to cause too many real concerns will be something for Arsene Wenger to address in the coming weeks.
Lukas Podolski, the £11m buy from FC Koln, curled a powerful free-kick over and Theo Walcott found the side-netting when he found space on the right. And when Olivier Giroud, the third summer capture from Montpellier for £12m, emerged from the bench to waste a glorious chance after Cazorla's clever through pass, Arsenal's afternoon was summed up.
That wasted opportunity arrived with eight minutes remaining and after that there was a sense Sunderland realised they would hold on, even occasionally pushing forward themselves through Saha's ability to hold things up and turn.
“It was hard to come to London to play against Arsenal,” said Cuellar, whose blocks at the heart of the defence were a regular aspect of Arsenal's misfortune in the attacking third.
“Arsenal move everywhere, the players don't tend to have positions, they go everywhere. We had to read that and we did that. This was only the first game but it shows we are already fit and we will get much fitter and stronger. “This was Arsenal. We had to read them, how they play. We had to chase the ball everywhere. It is hard. They have very good players. We will now have to try to do more going forward but I'm sure we can do that.”
In the first half Sunderland had a few decent chances themselves. Arsenal's golakeeper Wojciech Szczesny had to be alert to deny James McClean and then Jack Colback on a couple of occasions.
Now O'Neill must try to ensure the solid foundations the defence have laid out for Sunderland is followed up by increased attacking intent in the coming weeks, starting with Reading's visit to Wearside on Saturday.
“The team has confidence at this point,” said Cuellar. “We know every team is hard to play in the Premier League, whether it is Arsenal or Reading, so it will be hard whoever we play. But this will give us all confidence.
“We already had confidence going in to this. But this was an important point against one of the favourite teams for the Premier League title. We have shown we are strong and we are all happy, quite rightly.”