GUSTAVO POYET has praised Vito Mannone’s transformative impact on Sunderland’s season and urged the Italian goalkeeper to enjoy his emotional return to Arsenal tomorrow.
Mannone spent eight years at the Emirates Stadium after joining as a 17-year-old from Atalanta, but made just 15 Premier League appearances for Arsene Wenger.
He has already surpassed that total for Sunderland, with this month’s game against Hull City making it 16 league outings in a row since replacing the injured Keiren Westwood in November and retaining his place once the Irishman was passed fit.
In the three months since, Mannone has been the Black Cats’ most consistent performer, and when he returns to Arsenal tomorrow, he will do so as statistically the Premier League’s most effective goalkeeper.
“He has shown that he’s good enough to be a number one goalkeeper in the Premier League, and that is so important to us,” said Poyet. “It’s difficult to say whether I’m surprised or not by how well he’s done, but it was certainly one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, before the Man City game, whether to play Vito or Westy.
“Sometimes, you make decisions and they don’t go for you, and you’ve made a massive mistake and you need to rectify it and go back. Sometimes, the player proves you right and becomes a success. That’s up to the player.
“Vito is not playing well because I put him in against Man City - he’s playing well because he’s doing well and he’s in a great moment.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Gus Poyet has praised the impact Vito Mannone has had since being selected as Sunderland's first-choice goalkeeper
“This game, for him, should be a great day. He needs to take it as being a very enjoyable day rather than having something to prove, because then it would change his whole approach and feelings during the game.”
Mannone’s emergence has ensured that Simon Mignolet has not been missed following last summer’s move to Liverpool, and the goalkeeping position is one area of the field in which Sunderland are stronger than most of their relegation rivals.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the opposite end of the pitch, and if the Black Cats are to extricate themselves from the bottom three in the final three months of the season, Poyet accepts that their attacking efforts will have to improve.
Sunderland’s five main strikers (Steven Fletcher, Jozy Altidore, Fabio Borini, Connor Wickham and Ignacio Scocco) boast seven Premier League goals between them all season, and while the latter two can be absolved of blame given that they have hardly played, one member of the quintet is surely going to have to discover their shooting boots if their side is to survive.
“The goalkeeper and the strikers are very important roles in a team,” said Poyet. “Very, very important. If you don’t have players who are the best in those roles then you become a very weak team.
“Vito has done exceptionally well, and he’s helped us in terms of not having a number nine who is going to score us 15-20 goals at the moment. If you don’t have either, you’ve got no chance.
“If you have one or the other - if you save goals or score goals - then you have a chance. And if you have both, then you will be in the top ten for sure.
“What an opportunity for the strikers to become that number nine and get six or seven goals between now and the end of the season. If I was a player and saw that opportunity here, I would be desperate to take it.
“The one who scores the goals is normally the hero. You become the hero, the salvation against relegation. Now we have everybody fit, it’s up to them.”
Fletcher has only just returned to fitness, and the Scotsman is expected to be on the bench as Sunderland look to record their first league win at Arsenal since 1983.
His performances this season have been a pale imitation of the displays that lit up last term, but Poyet feels the niggling effects of a long-term Achilles injury help explain why he has struggled on a number of occasions.
“He was not training properly,” he said. “It’s a credit to him that he was able to go on the bench and play at all. There was one time where everybody asked me where he was during the game, but he was warming up in the dressing room on the bike to get ready to come on and play 20 minutes. It was better for him not to run outside.”
Last weekend, Sunderland’s attacking efforts in their FA Cup win over Southampton were aided by Poyet’s decision to play with two strikers, and while it would be a considerable risk to be as positive against Arsenal, the Uruguayan has hinted he could stick with the system at the Emirates.
“We’ve got a great chance in the future to play two strikers,” he said. “It hasn’t been working with one for some reason, or one-and-a-half sometimes with Fabio coming in.
“It depends on the games, and if we win the next three and I change things, you’ll say I was mad - but it’s an option. That’s why we tried it the other day.
“We tried with two up front for a reason. It could be two strikers all the time. We haven’t scored enough goals, so maybe two strikers are needed.”