There’s Robin van Persie. And then there’s the rest.
As expected, it was a hard fought game with diligent opponents crowding the midfield and the space in front of their defence. And they hardly offered any threat from open play.
The start was a bit of a pleasant surprise though. Van Persie put Arsenal ahead within 30 seconds of the start. Sunderland were clearly looking to lump the ball forward and push their midfield up. Before they could get into any sort of a shape the Gunners found a way to put the ball in the net. Rosicky’s initial pass to Gervinho was well read by O’Shea but his interception took it back to Little Mozart who chipped it first time for the Ivorian. For once the winger did find the final ball. Van Persie controlled it with a deft touch with his left before scoring with his right.
The goal came so early that the pattern of play wasn’t established and neither team really changed their approach. The Gunners kept pushing forward and were camped in the Sunderland half for 20-25 minutes. However, the visitors did get into a better shape and restricted the number of clear chances.
In the 8th minute Gervinho got to the byline but his ball across the goal was just out of the reach of Gibbs. Yes, Gibbs!
The most memorable moment of quite a while now came four minutes later. Arteta played it towards Van Persie who had drifted towards the right edge of the Sunderland box. De Kapitein turned his man beautifully and unleashed a Cantonaesque chip over Mignolet who’d given up. The ball just curved an inch or so more than desired to bounce back out off of the upright.
For a while the Gunners played with swagger reminiscent of Wenger’s best sides but the second goal didn’t come. Gervinho, in particular, got into some very exciting positions but his shot or pass just wasn’t good enough.
Given the recent experiences it was only going to take one moment that shook the players’ confidence and gave the visitors hope. It came just before the half-hour mark when Szczesny went walkabout leaving his goal exposed. Song’s tracking back saved the Pole’s skin in that instant but Sunderland showed a lot more belief from that moment on.
The equalizer came soon after. Arteta conceded a free-kick in a dangerous position with a careless handball as he jumped to challenge for a header. Larsson’s finish was simply superb but I thought Szczesny got his wall wrong. There should have been another player behind the Birmingham man on the edge of the wall. And while these look unstoppable, Szczesny has conceded or looked vulnerable from far too many direct free-kicks. It’s an area the youngster will have to focus on in training.
The Polish international did partly redeem himself with a big save three minutes later. Jenkinson was caught on the ball which ultimately led to a free header for Cattermole three yards out. The Keeper did well to make himself big and kept his eyes on the ball.
Sessegnon’s movement led to the final chance of the half just before half-time. The striker’s cross from the right was headed back across goal by Larsson but Colback’s shot on the turn went over.
I was impressed with the Gunners’ attitude in the second half. They came out with purpose and pushed forward in search of the winner. That was the best way to combat the lack of confidence and other issues caused by that.
There were a number of half-chances in the second half and many attacks led to corners and set-pieces. Sadly, most were terribly wasted.
However, Arsenal’s movement was causing the visitors a great many problems and led to a number of bookings. The pressure was building. At the other end there were some counter attacking opportunities but Szczesny was largely untroubled. The only cost for the Gunners was in the form of bookings for Song and Koscielny.
Early in the second half Santos had come on for Gibbs who, we later learned, suffered an inflammation of his stomach muscles. Five minutes after the hour, Arshavin came on for Gervinho who had been listless in the second half. The Russian almost scored a wonder goal after a slaloming run. I thought even a run like that would have been great for his confidence but a goal would have been wondrous.
Arsenal kept going as Benayoun seamlessly slotted in for Rosicky. Sunderland conceded one foul too many in the 82nd minute as Brown clipped Van Persie. De Kapitein delivered with a well placed strike. It was technically different from the usual RvP blasts. I had noticed some such attempts a while back but somehow van Persie hadn’t persevered with this style. Hope to see a better mix in future games.
The final few minutes were open and nervy as both sides got a few sighters but neither could find the finish.
As far as I am concerned, just as I said in the preview, a scrappy result will do just fine in the current scenario.
Szczesny: Made one game saving stop. Should have organized his wall better and needs more work on set-piece defending. Has to avoid coming out needlessly as that contributes to the jitters.
Jenkinson: Bit of a mixed bag. Worked really hard and sprinted up and down the flank throughout the game. Put in some good crosses but also produced some terrible ones. Made a number of mistakes and wasn’t always sure of his positioning.
Mertesacker: Not spectacular but fairly sturdy. His positioning was good. Covered for his fellow defenders when needed and helped with the passing game.
Koscielny: Apart from the booking, he hardly made any mistakes. Some of his passes were delightful.
Gibbs: Did well in the attacking areas when the team was dominant. Struggled a bit when the pressure mounted.
I thought the back five weren’t exceptionally good or bad. For large parts of the game the ball was deep in the Sunderland half. The defenders should have done better when the side was under pressure. There were a number of long punts in that period and a general lack of composure.
The full-backs are not at the level a dominant side would need but Sagna and Clichy didn’t do all that well in 2008-09 (Just after 2007-08 where they were the best in the League) when the formation was first changed. It asks a lot of these players and they will need playing time to get their positioning and decision making right.
The central defender don’t track the run of the striker when he drops deep. This seems like a tactical decision from the manager and it has allowed opponents a relatively easy way of getting the ball forward.
Song: Another massive effort from the Cameroonian. Moved high up the pitch quite often. Played some interesting passes but is a long way from making a consistent impact in the attacking areas. Tracked back when he had to and got a vital touch on a number of occasions. Another referee might have sent him off late in the game but I think taking such risks showed a better grasp of the League.
Rosicky: Sprightly with some impish guile sprinkled all over his performance. Didn’t get the right runs to feed when he created time and space for himself. But I want to see this for ten games in a row before I say he’s back.
Arteta: Poor set-pieces, conceded the free-kick with an unwarranted handball, didn’t offer much in terms of creativity. Work rate was good, kept the ball moving, but he has to produce a lot more.
The midfield saw a lot of the ball but rarely looked incisive. The movement, effort, and desire seems to be there. The understanding is getting better. But the rebuilding phase has just started and they must now focus on avoiding the one backward step after taking two steps forward.
Walcott: I get a feeling his role has changed a bit. These days he seems to drift in a bit more often and also plays with his back to the goal offering some lay-offs. His biggest strength hasn’t been used well thus far and this game wasn’t any different.
RvP: MotM by a country mile. Two good goals, superb movement, uncompromising effort.
Gervinho: Continues to excite and frustrate at the same time. Was very lively in the first half-hour. Created the goal and got into dangerous positions three or four times. End product was inconsistent to say the least. Drifted out of the game in the second half.
I am not convinced the front three are on the same page as the midfield. Possession isn’t translating into as many chances as the individual quality of the side should generate. Some technical issues and decision making need improvement.
Subs: Santos had a good game in defence. Arshavin was purposeful. Benayoun almost caused disaster with a poor back pass but was generally elegant.
Wenger: Picked a strong side. Substitutions were interesting and eventually effective. Has to continue improving defending from set-pieces and get better co-ordination from the forward players.