Home games don't come much tougher than against Arsenal and their visit to the Stadium of Light could hardly come at a worse time. Only one point has come from Sunderland's opening three fixtures, all against teams that are expected to be nearer the bottom than the top. The team is in a current state of disarray with so many new signings, an inexperienced Premier League manager and in addition captain John O'Shea starting a three-match suspension.
Paolo Di Canio faces many issues in all areas, with the defence leaking goals, especially from set pieces, the midfield constantly being changed for every game so far and the forwards lacking in much enterprise. One of the main questions will be what formation he selects against a team renowned for its strength in midfield. Coming into the equation are also the most recent signings Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabio Borini with Andrea Dossena reportedly still not fully fit. It could also be a God-send if Wes Brown proves almost fit enough to be included in squad.
For an insight into the match, we first asked for an Arsenal perspective from Lee Hurley, who set up LadyArse in 2008 single-handedly and has been a writer on football affairs for over 15 years.
WAW: We have made our usual annual wholesale changes. Out of curiosity, how would you say Sunderland are perceived amongst Arsenal fans and what do you think of our current squad?
Lee: Sunderland has always been a tough game for Arsenal and we're never certain of getting a result there. That being said, under Di Canio I think a lot of Arsenal fans are expecting the game to be a bit less physical than it usually is and that can only be good for us.
You've strengthened well this summer and your squad should see you climb the table without any problem.
WAW: How do you expect the season to pan out for Sunderland?
Lee: I can see Sunderland staying in the league without any real scares and expect that they will finish a good number of places above 17th where you finished last season. That being said, I'm rubbish at predictions but you are considerably stronger as a squad than many other sides in the division.
WAW: Onto your lot then, can you tell us how has your season gone so far?
Lee: Apart from a blip against Villa when everything that could go wrong did, we have only lost one game in the last 16 [including last season]. Defensively the team are working well for each other and who can complain about four wins from five games to start the new season?
WAW: So, erm, Mesut Ozil, he is canny. I presume he will take Tomas Rosicky’s place in the starting eleven – do you feel Arsenal are title contenders now?
Lee: We're still completely giddy about the fact that we've signed Mesut Ozil and there is no doubt that he can help us push on. As for a title charge? A lot of that will depend on how the rest of the squad stands up, we are still light upfront and could probably do with another defender so January will be important for the club. If we strengthen then and injuries are kind to us I don't see why we can't. We have a squad of players who have been together for awhile now and stability with the manager, something the other top teams don't have at present.
WAW: Arsenal rarely sparkle at the Stadium of Light, but often grind out results efficiently enough. How do you expect the weekend’s game to pan out?
Lee: I'd love to say we'll be able to go there and play flowing football but I just don't see it happening as we've struggled in the past to break down teams who defend deep in numbers. That being said, with Ozil now an option to find that killer pass, he could be the difference and Arsenal fans are practically salivating at the thought of seeing Ozil and Cazorla playing together.
WAW: Finally, who are you most worried about in the Sunderland line up and what is your prediction for the final score?
Lee: Is Fletcher fit? If he is, he's always a danger of course and Larsson always causes us problems with his set-pieces. As for the final score, I think it will be close but Arsenal will just edge it 2-1. But, as I said, I'm rubbish at predictions!
Arsenal always provide a stern test for any team, home or away. They have won six games in a row on the road and last season conceded only 14 goals away from home, the lowest in the league, although scoring just 24. Since returning to the Premiership, Sunderland have managed to defeat the Gunners only twice, including last year's impressive FA Cup victory in the fifth round. Five have been draws with six defeats, but only once by more than one goal.
Apart from being generally at opposite ends of the table, the two clubs are strikingly different in other ways. Sunderland have had six managers in six years, while Arsene Wenger has being at Arsenal since 1996, the longest-serving in all four leagues. The continuity at the Emirates is also in the players, most famously brought through their bedrock youth system. The current shelf-life of squad players at the Stadium of Light in contrast can be barely two years.
In previous meetings, Sunderland have tended to pack their midfield to counter Arsenal's passing game. They have often upped a workman performance which has helped to keep score-lines down, often being decided by the odd goal. One of Di Canio's claimed strengths is in video analysis of opponents, although there must be grave doubts from the tactics deployed so far this season.
If the Italian coach follows suit in adding to the midfield it will be a reverse from his clear preference to play 4-2-4. It was certainly a surprise that he insisted on the formation against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, especially when left with just pair of strikers who were both inexperienced. Likewise, he persevered when bringing on Connor Wickham at Southampton despite leading 1-0 with only 10 minutes to go. Highly questionable decisions.
Arguments can also be made for extra depth in midfield as cover to try help with the lack of speed in Sunderland's defence and to curtail opportunities for threaded through balls. Extra players in the centre would enhance the ability to close down and press to disrupt Arsenal's comfortable style. While playing with two strikers could stretch the play, it needs also having better possession.
There are many factors affecting team selection, including the fitness of players returning from the international break. Doubts through injuries already linger over Wickham, Dossena, Craig Gardner and most tragically Wes Brown, who Sunderland could certainly do with but maybe a game too early. O'Shea will be missing after being red-carded after his blundering lapse of concentration at Selhurst Park, presumably leaving Jack Colback to take the armband for the first time.
Without Sunderland's captain, the defence will certainly be lacking in experience and organisation. Colback, Modibo Diakite, Valentin Roberge, Ondrej Celustka and Carlos Cuellar have all at least had the chance to train together for the past two weeks while not being on international duty. It is hoped that the coach has included dealing with set pieces but whichever four are in the starting line-up will have their work cut out. Late optimism also suggests Brown may be squeezed in despite being far from 100%.
Central midfield is much more difficult to forecast given that a different permutation of Cabral, Seb Larsson, Gardner and David Vaughan have been utilised in all four games so far, including the 2nd round of the Capital Cup. Ki, on loan from Swansea, has been added to the pool and seems likely to play a part if not start. In the background also remains Lee Cattermole, but seems to be still a week or two away from re-joining the fold.
Up front, almost certainly Adam Johnson and Emanuele Giaccherini will be retained as inverted wingers but who play in the middle is anyone's guess. Will it be the long-awaited combination of Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore, which depends on the fitness of both? Will Borini be brought in for his debut? It needs more than a mind-reader to guess who the Italian maverick will select and could be just one not a pair.
Likely gung-ho team Di Canio could pick: Keiran Westwood, Celustka, Diakite, Cuellar, Colback; Larsson, Ki; Johnson, Fletcher, Altidore, Giaccherini. Subs: Mannone, Dossena or Brown (if either fit), Roberge, Cabral (or Cattermole), Vaughan, Mavrias, Borini. (With his knee-jerk tinkering, I do not entirely rule out Vito Mannone getting the nod over Westwood, who did not seem as confident self at Palace, but believe this would be a mistake and give a wrong message to the Irish international.)
I am not sure if Roberge or Cuellar will be selected but my preference would be to go for experience with the Spaniard. Certainly Brown would be a more than welcome inclusion, even in the starting line-up despite being far from match fit. Personally, I would have three in central midfield and would add Cabral, although not sure why, or if still, is out-of-favour. An alternative could be to play Roberge as a defensive midfielder. This would leave just one up front, which I feel should go to Fletcher even if hardly 50 per cent match fit. Altidore, who may be still suffering from jet lag, could be then used from bench. Borini also is an option depending on state of play.
Whichever team or formation, it will require a gigantic backs-to-the-wall performance to get anything from the game. It seems as though Arsenal are suffering from their own injury list, which may help a little. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta are out, while there are doubts about Tomas Rosicky, Lukas Podolski, Thomas Vermaelen and Yaya Sanogo, However record signing Mesut Ozil and the return of Mathieu Flamini are waiting to make starts.
My main hope of optimism is that Sunderland often step up their game against the top clubs, but even so it will be very difficult to get even a point. I would be fairly happy with Lee's prediction of a 1-2 defeat providing there are positive signs with improved performances. On the other hand I fear only two in central midfield could easily end in a routing.
Prediction: 1-3 or even worse, unless things are drastically turned around from previous matches. Then again my predictions must be on a level with Lawro's and hope to be proved completely wrong.