SUNDERLAND have visited Arsenal and fielded no strikers before.

They have pitched up at the Emirates and played like they had no defenders at times.

But on Saturday, they turned up at one of the most difficult grounds to visit in the Premier League with two midfielders – and it almost paid off for them.

Yann M’Vila and Ola Toivonen were the central men in Sam Allardyce’s side, with three centre-halves behind them, two wing-backs either side and a front three of Fabio Borini, Duncan Watmore and Steven Fletcher.

It was daring, while also maintaining solidity. But ultimately fruitless, as Sunderland came away from North London with nothing.

It did, however, provide the 3,000 travelling fans a hint that this season, unlike the others, may not require the late charge towards safety that they have become accustomed to.

For Sunderland did not play like a team in trouble. They were comfortable for a lot longer than they should have been against a team of Arsenal’s quality. And while the Gunners were flat at times, Allardyce’s side were good value for their dominance.

The difference between the Gunners and Sunderland on Saturday was clinicality. The money and prestige afforded to Arsenal brings quality players to the club and it was such quality at the key times that won the day for Arsene Wenger’s side.

One of those players could have been M’Vila, who Wenger admitted in his programme notes was a target of theirs once. But, a chequered reputation allowed Sunderland to get the Frenchman in on loan from Rubin Kazan.

It may have seemed a risk at the time, but M’Vila’s assured performance should attract the attention of clubs richer than Sunderland. The Black Cats have first refusal on him but it would be a surprise if a club – perhaps even Arsenal – show some interest in a player that has been previously regarded as damaged goods.

Toivonen, restored to Sunderland’s line-up for the Arsenal trip, praised M’Vila on his man of the match performance.

“Yann is a quality player,” said the Swedish international after Sunderland were beaten 3-1, with goals from Joel Campbell, before Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey followed up Giroud’s own goal on the stroke of half-time. “You can see that from the clubs he’s played at. He’s a quality player and can bring a lot to the team.

“I’m not surprised how good he is. I knew about him when he was in France and I’ve played against him in the Euros as well, so I know all about him.

“He’s a top European player. As he plays more games he’s going to show that he’s the top player we know he is.”

Sunderland arrived in the capital looking to make it three wins on the bounce after heartening wins against Crystal Palace and Stoke City, but Arsenal overcame an awful first half to see the win home.

Toivonen feels the Black Cats’ profligacy in the first half cost them dearly.

“We deserved more, but if you don’t score against Arsenal, then you’re losing the game,” said the former Rennes man after Fabio Borini, Duncan Watmore and Steven Fletcher all missed decent chances. “We had good opportunities with Fabio, with Duncan, with my flick to Fletcher in the second half as well, so there were big chances – but we didn’t score.

“We’re moving in the right direction. We’re solid at the back and kept Arsenal moving the ball from side to side at times and we looked dangerous.

“It’s difficult to say why we missed those chances. Of course you could see the quality Arsenal had. When they got the chances they scored directly – that’s why they are playing for Arsenal.

“There’s no need for us to stress about it, we just need to be patient and the chances will come.

“It is tough to take when you come away with nothing, but we need to take the positives from the performance and look forward to the next game. If we play the same way against Watford then I’m sure we’ll take the three points.

Sunderland were punished for their early misses when Arsenal, who had struggled to find their rhythm, put together a nice move when Ozil found Campbell, who raced in between Yedlin and Costel Pantilimon to slot home.

Sunderland hit back on the stroke of half-time, though, when, after Watmore was fouled near the touchline, M’Vila swung in a left-wing cross which Giroud inadvertently diverted past Cech into the back of the net.

Arsenal showed their quality just after the hour mark, and Giroud made amends for his earlier own goal by heading Ramsey’s cross past Pantilimon.

There was a big let-off for Arsenal when Nacho Monreal almost chested past Cech, but Arsene Wenger’s side swept up the other end and Ramsey was allowed to bundle home to make Arsenal’s victory safe.

It was an unfamiliar shape for Sunderland, with Allardyce not afraid to field different formations in a bid to get the best out his players ahead of the January transfer window, and Toivonen believes that the players worked well within the new-look system.

He added: “I felt good. Yann played well in the middle, so it felt really good together. We won the ball and with the three up front destroyed Arsenal at times, but we couldn’t score.

“We tried to be solid at the back, with me and Yann in the middle, five behind us, and the rest a little more further forward. I think it worked well for us but we didn’t score.

“We’re adjusting fine. We haven’t had any problem with it so far. On Saturday we went to more of a 3-4-3 and we handled it well, so we just need to listen to what the gaffer is asking us to do and carry it out on the pitch.”