THERE is never a good time to play Arsenal away – certainly not if, like Sunderland, you have not tasted victory at Ashburton Grove. But during an August transfer window it can be less ominous than usual.
This time last year the Gunners got off to a horrendous start, ruling them out of the title race before it was up and running. With uncertainty over the futures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri – more over when rather than if their transfers would be completed – and replacements unable to join until the money was banked, they were a shambles.
After an unimpressive opening-day draw at Newcastle United, things went downhill fast. They lost to Liverpool and conceded eight at Old Trafford.
It was September 24 before they recovered their composure sufficiently to record a first win of the Premier League season.
Twelve months on, things have been similarly disruptive.
Robin van Persie inherited the captain’s armband and the role of talisman from Fabregas. Now he too has gone.
The Dutchman was one of the best strikers in the world last term, scoring 37 goals in 48 appearances. After a will-he, won’t-he summer prompted by his refusal to extend his contract beyond its final 12 months, van Persie officially became a Manchester United player only yesterday.
If it played havoc with Arsenal’s opening-day preparations, it did not exactly help Sunderland’s either that they did not know if they would be up against one of the Premier League’s most deadly marksmen.
As one of those most affected, Sunderland centre-back Titus Bramble does not think it is a big issue.
“It’s more of a case of doing what we have to do regardless of what players they put out,” reasons Bramble, who will hope to make the Black Cats’ first starting line-up of the season with Wes Brown injured.
“Even without van Persie they’ve got people who can do a job similar to him.
“You look at Arsenal’s shape because whether van Persie does or doesn’t, they’re going to play the same shape. It’s more a case of how we combat that shape.”
At least this year the Gunners were able to get their replacements in first, with Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud in line for debuts at the sharp end of the field.
“Arsenal are a massive club so they’re going to sign world-class players,” shrugs Bramble.
“But it might take them time to gel, so fingers crossed they won’t be firing on Saturday.
“A lot of the talk has been about van Persie, so it’s going to be kind of unsettling for them.”
The ridiculous idea of starting a season with the transfer window still open – not to mention a terribly-timed international week – means Sunderland have had distractions to overcome too.
The saga of their summer is still to be resolved, although Wolverhampton Wanderers have attempted to bring it to a conclusion by telling Sunderland that forward Steven Fletcher is no longer for sale.
Louis Saha arrived on Thursday – although not instead of Fletcher – and manager Martin O’Neill has made it plain he hopes others will follow. Many of Saha’s team-mates will have met him on yesterday’s bus journey to London.
Again, transfers are not something Bramble is about to lose sleep over.
“We just leave that to the manager and the people above him, but we’re confident we’ll get the right players in for the squad,” he says.
“We just train every day thinking this is going to be the squad for the season. Any new signings are a bonus.
“You never know, we might sign three or four players this week, we might go to the end of the window (without any more new faces).”
Sunderland’s only other signing was Carlos Cuellar, keeping up the pressure on Bramble as he looks to finally establish himself under O’Neill. Last term the former Newcastle United man played just five times for him, hampered by injury and a court case eventually resolved in his favour.
“That’s what we need,” Bramble said of the competition from Cuellar, Brown, John O’Shea and Matt Kilgallon.
“You don’t want to go into games each week thinking you’re going to play because you start getting slack.
“It keeps you on your toes when you’ve got four or five centre-halves at the club.”
So much is made of the importance of starting a season well that it sometimes come across as overblown. But the experiences of Sunderland and Arsenal last term suggests otherwise. Both had to lower their sights for the campaign after giving their rivals too big a head-start.
“Last season we were kind of playing catch-up,” Bramble reflects. “The league’s getting better and better so you don’t want to give a head-start to anybody.
“Had we had a good start last season, you never know where we might have finished. But you look at what the manager did last season (after replacing Steve Bruce in December) and I don’t see why we can’t have a good season.”