Having already exited the FA Cup and Papa John’s Trophy this fixture represented a chance to keep our impressive League Cup run going, and for our newly-remodeled squad to test themselves against an Arsenal team who are reborn under Mikel Arteta.
Depending on your point of view, this was either an exciting glimpse into the club’s potential future - where games like this could be a weekly affair - or a sepia-tinted look back into our past, when trips to the Emirates were backs-to-the-wall affairs, often with top-flight survival on the line.
In any case, it was certainly an occasion to be relished. After three years of trying to generate excitement for trips to stadiums such as Fratton Park and Sincil Bank, the prospect of a return to a top-flight stadium was one of great excitement, and the fact that Sunderland’s ticket allocation was sold out on a cold winter’s night was immensely heartening as well.
Lee Johnson’s team selection demonstrated the ongoing respect he has for this competition. He chose a strong eleven, maintained his trust in his go-to players, and did not fall into the trap of mass rotation on the basis that this game was a lost cause.
It was a very admirable approach.
The early stages were fairly even, with Arsenal seeing plenty of the ball but with Sunderland piecing together some decent passages of play, an early one of which ended with a tame shot from Alex Pritchard, and another that ended with a half-hearted penalty claim from Ross Stewart.
At the other end, some slick Arsenal interplay almost resulted in a goal as a Nuno Taveres shot looped off Elliot Embleton and against the bar. Sunderland did look slightly flustered at times, and it was crucial that we tried to keep things calm as Arsenal turned up the wick.
The home side eventually opened the scoring through Eddie Nketiah as he tapped home after Lee Burge could only parry a Rob Holding header back into the danger area. Slack marking from us, and a very soft goal to concede.
Ten minutes later, things got worse as Nicolas Pepe flashed the ball home after another well-worked move, albeit with a big deflection from a despairing Callum Doyle. 2-0, and at that point, the question was whether we were done and dusted.
Sunderland wasted no time in hitting back. We regained possession and launched a speedy counter-attack that ended with Nathan Broadhead impudently dinking the ball over Bernd Leno for a priceless opening goal. We were back in the game, and Leno was quickly called into action again, tipping a Carl Winchester shot around the post as we ended the half strongly.
It was exactly the kind of response we needed, albeit tempered by the worrying loss of the increasingly indispensable Broadhead to a hamstring injury just before half time.
Unfortunately, Arsenal were quicker out of the blocks in the second half as Nketiah added his second with a smart flicked finish at the near post. Neither Embleton or Callum Doyle did themselves any favours for it, but nevertheless, the technique was superb. Embleton almost made amends for his error minutes later as a spectacular curled shot from outside the box flicked off the outside of the post.
As the sixty-minute mark approached, Sunderland were finished off for good as Nketiah, who we couldn’t handle all evening, completed his hat-trick with a sumptuous finish. It was classic Arsenal, and a goal that you simply had to admire. That set up the final half an hour as a classic ‘keep ball’ session as we battled hard and with plenty of pride, but a late goal from Charlie Patino added the final gloss to a thoroughly deserved scoreline.
The positives from this game were the attitude and application we demonstrated, which were both largely exceptional even in the face of a brutal scoreline, and the continued and rapid improvement being shown by Pritchard, who is rapidly evolving into the kind of quality playmaker we all hoped he would.
On the other hand, Denver Hume endured a brutally difficult evening, and will doubtless be reverting to a backup role when Dennis Cirkin regains full fitness, and Doyle will certainly take some harsh lessons from his evening’s work, but that is all part of his development as a player.
Onwards to Doncaster it is. With no more distractions, we also have no excuses.
By the time we kick off next Monday, this defeat needs to have been parked, and we the players need to be ready to restart the league campaign in winning style.