BETTER, so much better. Chins up, chests puffed out, resolute, strong, tough and determined.
There was so much for Sunderland to be proud of against Arsenal, but nothing will cause Steve Bruce more satisfaction than the brilliance of his defence.
A former centre-back by trade, Bruce’s success as a manager is built on the solid foundations of a sound defence. A well-organised, heavy-tackling, competitive, hard to break down backline protected by a well-organised, heavy-tackling, competitive, hard to break down midfield in front of them.
Bruce is no Sam Allardyce. He does not concentrate on stopping the opposition play before giving any thought to what his team are actually going to do with the ball. He is not all set-pieces, long throws and even longer balls out of defence.
There is not a negative bone in his body, let alone a thought in his mind, but ultimately he knows nothing can be achieved with a defence which leaks goals like a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate loses votes.
Sunderland’s progress this season can be measured in their defensive statistics, and so can their recent slump. This was the Black Cats’ 12th clean sheet in the Premier League and their 13th of the campaign in all competitions, yet it was also their first since the 1-0 win at Aston Villa on January 5.
Since that victory in Birmingham, Sunderland have conceded 15 goals in just seven games. At the start of the season it took them 14 games to concede as many, and five of those came in that nightmare Hallowe’en trip to Newcastle.
The problems in defence have hurt Bruce as much as results, but all that was good about the Black Cats’ rearguard returned against Arsenal.
Yes, the Gunners will feel they should have won the game and had the chances to do so, but even a one-eyed Arsene Wenger, wearing Arsenal rose-tinted spectacles, could not deny Sunderland defended magnificently.
The Wearsiders’ hero was Simon Mignolet. Even Bruce was worried the young Belgian would struggle in his first year in England having swapped the relative obscurity of life with his home town club Sint-Truiden for a pressure-cooker move to the Premier League.
Sunderland’s manager even spent much of his time in Portugal in pre-season wondering whether he should sign former England international David James on a short-term contract and loan Mignolet out to a Championship club to acclimatise to life in a new country, but the 22-year-old has been magnificent whenever he has deputised for the injury-cursed Craig Gordon.
And this was arguably his best of the lot. He produced two stunning saves, one in either half. The first saw him tip a vicious shot from Nicklas Bendtner over the bar after Jack Wilshere had chipped a wonderful pass over the heads of Sunderland’s defence.
If that owed much to his instinctive reactions and good angles, the one in the second was down to quick feet and a strong wrist, adjusting himself on the move to get a hand up to keep Samir Nasri’s free-kick out as it looked to be creeping under the crossbar. Mignolet also did well to palm away a well-struck shot from Andrei Arshavin after the Russian had been teed up inside the area by Marouane Chamakh who had capitalised on a mistake by Titus Bramble.
That brings us nicely to Sunderland’s stand-in skipper. As ever, the Match of the Day pundits chose to highlight that mis-judgement as he tried to cut out a long ball, but the centre-back was immense, the rock around which the rest of the defence threw their rope.
Time and time again Arsenal attacks floundered on his sizeable frame, while his last-ditch tackles in the area either side of half-time almost certainly denied Arshavin a goal.
Indeed, even when the Arsenal player got the better of him, drifting goalside as he ran in on Mignolet, Bramble did enough to save his side, albeit unfairly. First he tugged gently on Arshavin’s shirt to hold him up and then, as he prepared to shoot, shoved him cleverly on the backside as he lost balance and fired into the advertising hoardings. Bruce will have been delighted.
Special mentions should also go to Anton Ferdinand and Sulley Muntari. Two of Sunderland’s worst players in the defeat at Everton, they were superb in the capital, while John Mensah enjoyed a timely return to form. When Arsenal did get a clear sight of goal, they missed, Chamakh putting a header against the crossbar in the second half.
Sunderland, though, were about more than just defence. Stephane Sessegnon forced a sharp save from Wojciech Szczesny in the first half at the end of a potent counter-attack, while Danny Welbeck almost won it for the visitors late on, the Arsenal goalkeeper somehow tipping his shot round the post.
Arsenal might still have grabbed the win they needed to maintain the pressure on Manchester United, but Arshavin was incorrectly penalised for offside before he rounded Mignolet and rolled the ball into the net.