There was an unexpected beneficiary of Paolo Di Canio’s red and white “revolution” on Saturday: Arsene Wenger.
The customary grimace that usually adorns the Arsenal manager’s face after these fixtures was nowhere to be seen as he addressed the media deep in the bowels of the emptying Stadium of Light. For once, Wenger’s expression did not curdle when he name-checked Sunderland.
“Interesting,” was what he called Di Canio’s developing team. “From what I’ve seen today,” he continued, “they have potential. They went 4-4-2 and that surprised me. They were a handful.”
If you are looking for signs that times are changing on Wearside, here is what a withering Wenger had to say 12 months ago about the same opponents. “Sunderland always play the same way against us – defensively. They defend the whole game.” For all the rage and righteousness that has crystallised public perceptions of Di Canio’s “revolution” since the season began, Saturday saw the Sunderland manager try to outplay Arsenal rather than simply contain them. He has not made a bolder call since he took over.
Forget the frippery of fining Phil Bardsley and the fury of his post-match rollickings – here was something of substance to judge Di Canio by. Not since they returned to the Premier League have Sunderland attempted to match a team like Arsenal with a four-man midfield, and in trying to unpick rather than block the Gunners he was making a stirring statement of intent.
For 45 minutes, it looked like a disastrous decision. The Sunderland manager had banked on the creativity of new loan signing Ki, but it was no match for the glittering jewel in Arsenal’s engine room.
Mesut Ozil did not come cheap but Wenger has signed a Rolls-Royce midfielder in the brilliant German. His incision and wit comes straight from the Real Madrid finishing school and he wasted little time in asserting himself on a contest that thundered with Premier League intensity. The home side simply couldn’t handle him. Eleven minutes were on the clock when his wonderful touch brought down a Kieran Gibbs through ball with a brilliant sleight of foot before delivering Olivier Giroud the simplest of finishes inside the penalty area.
You feared for Sunderland at that point. Without the experience of John O’Shea and Wes Brown, they were in serious danger of collapsing as Arsenal sliced them open at will.
Come the interval, the tide turned. Di Canio resisted the temptation to throw on an extra midfielder and the courage of his convictions was rewarded with a performance that provides fuel for his belief that Sunderland are beginning to turn a corner.
Had it not been for Martin Atkinson’s bewildering call on Jozy Altidore’s disallowed equaliser, the Black Cats’ remarkable second-half recovery might have been the story of the day.
As it was, Ozil swiped the headlines and Di Canio’s banishment to the stands made for a nice sub-plot on a day when Sunderland slipped to the bottom of the nascent Premier League table. The numbing disappointment and nagging concern feels familiar but the reaction to defeat did not: Di Canio was showered with applause when he returned to the field to salute the emptying stadium after full time.
It is eight Premier League games without a win for the Italian now – Di Canio stuck on just two in eleven since taking over at Sunderland. For all the bravado of recent weeks there is a pressing need for his Black Cats to start channelling their manager’s enthusiasm into the points which will prevent this early blip from becoming a serious crisis of confidence.
Yet there were signs there might be something in Di Canio’s footballing philosophy here. The manager’s demeanour was in stark contrast to the fury of previous weeks as he spoke of grasping the encouraging half hour of the game and using it to fuel the aspirations of a first win of the season at West Brom.
He said afterwards: “I am not worried. I am happier today than after Crystal Palace. That might sound strange but it is only the fourth game of the season, not the 20th.
“Many players were playing together for the first time and, from what I have seen, I am coming away feeling positive, but I suppose it means nothing because we lost.
“We have to be more angry with ourselves.
“We need to fight more at West Brom otherwise we will have problems.”
Whatever the rigorous methodology of his approach, there is no accounting for a refereeing decision as bad as anything you will see this season.
Sunderland had fallen behind to Aaron Ramsey’s laser volley in the second half but were still swinging when Atkinson – inexplicably – hauled back play when Altidore brushed off the attentions of Bacary Sagna before sweeping a second equaliser.
In a call that defied belief, the official had already blown up play and so rolled the decision back to award a Sunderland free kick. Quite apart from the obvious onus on him to play advantage, there was also the matter of whether Sagna had denied a clear goalscoring opportunity.
Both were valid complaints as the Stadium of Light howled its indignation. When Ramsey picked them off again to settle the contest, a seething sense of injustice settled on Wearside.
“I am not worried,” Di Canio intoned serenely afterwards. There was logic behind that – but he needs to add points to his sense of satisfaction swiftly.