Ah it's been a while, but we're back with a bang for our first Fan Focus of the season. For this weekend's trip to Arsenal we're delighted to welcome back to the feature an old favourite of it, Adrian Clarke.
Obviously the title of this is merely pun and in no way an indication of the quality of the interview. Adrian is a fine, fine journalist and commentator having transitioned into the media following the end of his career, during which he actually played several times for his beloved Arsenal.
You can catch Adrian around the web on Twitter @AdrianJClarke as well as hosting the rather marvellous Red, White & Blue Podcast. Gunners fans will also know him from his regular work on the clubs official site too, so there's really no better place to go for our Arsenal related opinions.
Without further ado, here's our chat with Adrian. Enjoy!
How has the transfer window gone for Arsenal so far? It seems like a totally different strategy to last season's last-minute buys? Are you happy with the players that have come in?
Adrian Clarke: I think Arsene Wenger should be applauded for his business dealings this summer, as all three new boys are terrific talents who are in the prime of their careers. Olivier Giroud is 25 and was top scorer in France last season, while Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla are 27 and players of immense pedigree. It's a shift in policy to sign mid-20's stars ahead of young, blossoming talent and it's something I agree with completely. All three reportedly only cost around £40m too. Bargains!
And how has pre-season gone, are Arsenal playing well? How do the new boys look?
AC: It's been a strange pre-season because there haven't been that many games. On tour in Asia Arsenal blooded lots of youngsters and played pretty well at times, although one win, one draw and one defeat (to Man City) wasn't fantastic in terms of results. Theo Walcott and Gervinho have looked sharp and going forward we've been excellent but as it was last season, we haven't looked overly confident at the back. Last weekend in Cologne all three new boys made their debuts and they were fabulous. Podolski scored a cracker, Giroud played beautifully and Santi Cazorla was absolutely majestic.
Could this be the season when Arsenal challenge for the title again, or are the Manchesters still a way ahead of you?
AC: I can see Arsenal running City and United a lot closer this season. There is competition for places all over the pitch and the new signings are real match winners. If we can keep Van Persie and sign two defensive minded players before September Arsenal will have a formidable squad. Champions? Maybe that's a stretch too far but there won't in my opinion be as much clear daylight between the Gunners and the top two this time.
So, where do you think the Gunners will finish this season?
AC: There's a possibility that Arsenal could finish the season in 2nd place but I wonder if there's an element of wishful thinking behind that prediction. I don't feel we're strong enough defensively to win the title but expect us to score a lot of goals this term. We should be very entertaining to watch.
Have you been following Sunderland's dealings at all? What do you make of Wolves wanting £15m+ for Steven Fletcher?
AC: Martin O'Neill has been very quiet this summer hasn't he? Not too much has been happening at all, which surprises me a little. I know that Carlos Cuellar has come in, and he's a decent defender, but I do wonder if you guys need quite a bit more firepower. Steven Fletcher would be a very good acquisition but I wouldn't say he was worth anywhere near £15m! If you can get him for £7-8million it could be money well spent.
And how do you think the Black Cats will fare this season? A lot of previews are very split on how they'll do...
AC: I think you have to trust Martin ONeill because his record suggests he knows what he's doing. There is a stability within the squad now, and I'm sure a fine team spirit is being fostered too and that's at the crux of it. If you stick together as a team, and as a crowd, keeping expectations realistic I believe you can improve on last season's 13th place finish. I don't see Sunderland in the top eight though.
In terms of the game, who should we be worried about? Who's going to cause us problems?
AC: If Santi Cazorla starts that could be bad news for the Black Cats. He looks superb. I also think Theo Walcott is ready to step up and have a consistently good season this year. If I were in the Sunderland back four I'd be nervous. That said, no one at Arsenal has played 90 minutes in pre-season so I fear we may be a bit under cooked. Late on, you guys might get some joy.
And which of the new boys should we fear?
AC: All three can hurt you but as I said, Cazorla is potentially the main man. He will create plenty of chances.
And is there anyone at Sunderland that you don't fancy coming up against?
AC: Honestly, not really. Sunderland seem to adopt a very defensive mentality against Arsenal under Martin O'Neill and if that continues it could be a long afternoon for you. My one fear is at right back where we're missing Bacary Sagna. If James Maclean gets himself into the game he could be a thorn in our side, as Carl Jenkinson or Nico Yennaris are inexperienced defenders that will have to mark him. I also worry about Seb Larsson's free kicks too. He's magic from the deal ball.
And, can I get a prediction from you?
AC: I'll predict a 3-1 win for the Gunners in this one. I just can't see Sunderland containing the forward line. Over the course of the season I think the Black Cats will be fine though. You should manage a top half finish.