At long last the dreaded international break is over, and it's back to real football tomorrow for Arsenal as they play at home to Sunderland in the Premier League. It's a game Arsenal are clear favourites to win, but given their troubled start to the season nothing is certain with them. They currently occupy 15th place in the table with seven games played, and it's a situation which is alien to a lot of Arsenal fans.
I've been around longer than quite a few other Arsenal fans, and I can remember a very close escape from relegation in the mid 1970s. I can't see Arsenal slipping so far as to actually get involved in a relegation dogfight, but they have to start climbing the table if they are going to have a realistic chance of finishing in a Champions League position. At the moment that's probably the best Arsenal can hope for, and possibly the hope of a cup win too.
Arsenal have played three games at home in the Premier League so far this season, and they haven't let in a goal when they have had all 11 players on the field. The only two goals they conceded were against Liverpool after Emmanuel Frimpong had been sent off. A clean sheet against Sunderland would be a great boost for the team, and maybe it would help to sort out their defensive woes on their travels.
Arsenal had the best away record in the Premier League last season, but this time around they have only one point in four games and they have conceded 14 goals in the process. Thankfully their cup form has held up so far and they are through to the last 16 in the Carling Cup as well as in a good position after two games in their Champions League group. There's still four games left in that group, but Arsenal look more than capable of making it through to the last 16.
That Champions League campaign will continue on Wednesday night when Arsenal make a trip to Marseille to play the only team ahead of them in the group. They then play Marseille again two weeks later, and I think a win and a defeat in those two games would be a very satisfactory outcome. It would mean a victory over Borussia Dortmund towards the end of November would probably guarantee a place in the last 16 for Arsenal.
Looking at the Sunderland game Arsenal will still be without Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen and Abu Diaby, but there are no new injured players to add to them at least. Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou will be available again after their recent injuries, and Sebastien Squillaci will be back too.
Arsenal's two best defenders are without doubt Vermaelen and Sagna, and their absence will be felt by the whole team. Vermaelen is at least said to be only two weeks away from returning according to the official Arsenal site, but Sagna's broken leg means he won't return until the new year at the earliest.
At least Koscielny should be fit enough to play alongside Per Mertesacker in the centre of defence, which should mean Alex Song can return to his usual defensive midfield role. It's not easy to know who will get the nod at left back, but I think Kieran Gibbs will continue to be first choice ahead of Adre Santos for the moment. The real problem for Arsenal comes when they try to cover for Sagna for the next few months.
Carl Jenkinson has shown plenty of promise in his few appearances so far, but he is desperately inexperienced at this level or any other level too. He's the logical replacement for Sagna, but he is being thrown in at the deep end, and I hope he has his water wings with him. I really hope the run he looks certain to get in the team will be the making of him as a player, but it could go the other way too.
Arsenal's defence looked far from stable last season, but the combination of players available to play against Sunderland is definitely not as strong as the defence was last season. They need to play together as a unit and concentrate for every minute of the game if they are to have any success.
The biggest threat from Sunderland will be the dead ball delivery from former Arsenal player Seb Larsson, but thankfully he won't have Nicklas Bendtner available to get on the end of them. Bendtner is currently on loan from Arsenal to Sunderland, and he cannot play against Arsenal under the terms of his loan agreement. The chances are they will give young summer purchase Connor Wickham a chance to show what he can do instead.
Arsenal's midfield should welcome Song back, and both Mikael Artets and Aaron Ramsey are almost certain to continue in front of him. Since the departure of both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri and the injury to Wilshere Arsenal's midfield has been devoid of the drive it needs to play at a pace to really hurt the opposition. Both Arteta and Ramsey have looked good at time, but the ball isn't getting played in behind opposition defences often enough.
Even when Wilshere and Diaby return I think Arsenal need to invest heavily in a top class play-maker to make the team tick again. There simply aren't enough assists coming from the centre of the midfield at the moment.
Arsenal captain Robin Van Persie will continue in the central strikers role again of course, and the chances are Theo Walcott and Gervinho will be on either side of him. Both of those players can be very frustrating at times, and neither of them had any real impact in Arsenal's last game. There is a case for playing Andrey Arshavin of course, but he can be even more frustrating than both of them at times.
Personally I would love to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain set loose on Sunderland, but Arsene Wenger has said he will not be rushed. He's a little worried that Chamberlain's defensive concentration might not be up to the standard required in the Premier League. I think Wenger should be more worried that the Arsenal defenders' concentration hasn't been at that level so far this season either.
I would like to see Chamberlain on the bench at least so that he can get 30 minutes of Premier League action. If Arsenal need to change things around at that stage he could be the man to do that, and if they are already ahead he could punish the opposition even further. The decision obviously rests with Wenger, and I can only hope he makes the right one.
Arsenal may have conceded far too many goals already this season, but despite their bad start only four teams have scored more goals than them in the league. Robin Van Persie is the form goalscorer for Arsenal, and I expect him to add to that tally against Sunderland. He says he has never felt in better condition playing for Arsenal, and if he can at last remain injury free he could have a bumper season.
Arsenal's season has been stop-start so far and they need to string some results together as soon as possible. A win against Sunderland followed by a home win against Stoke City next week would certainly move them towards the right end of the table. I think the players available are capable of winning both of those games, and finally getting Arsenal's league campaign on the right track.
It has been a very turbulent time with all of the players that have come and gone from the squad, and it wasn't helped by the majority of the business being done on deadline day. The two international breaks since then have meant there has been very little time for the players to gel, and as the results continue to underwhelm the pressure is growing on the players.
I'm predicting a 3-1 win for Arsenal with RVP getting on the scoreboard yet again, and I have a feeling Gervinho is due a goal too. I hope to see some better set pieces from Arteta who has been at the club for the last two weeks, as others have been playing for their countries.
I'll be at the game myself, as I'm making the trip over early on Sunday morning with some fellow Irish Gooners. We'll be meeting some other Arsenal fans in a local pub before and after the game, and it should be a great day hopefully.
That's it for today.
Here's a look at Oxlade-Chamberlain's hat-trick for England's under 21s last week.
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