Monday, October 27, 2014

Sunderland 0 Arsenal 2

This was the match Arsenal had to take maximum points from, following the disappointing 2-2 draw with Hull at home last weekend. Meanwhile, Sunderland suffered a humiliating 8-0 defeat at Southampton last Saturday. We didn't know how it would affect them on the day. Their confidence must have been shot, but they needed to respond strongly in front of the home crowd. Many speculated that Sunderland would ring quite a few changes if not wholesale, but options were limited given the depth of the squad. Arsenal went into the game as favourites, but a few pundits predicted a 1-1 draw, taking into account the Gunners' recent poor performances and Sunderland's possible response.

Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side that started in a dramatic 2-1 win in Brussels in midweek. Wojciech Szczesny replaced Emiliano Martinez in goal after serving a European ban. Mikel Arteta made a first start since his return from a calf injury he suffered in the north London derby, while Aaron Ramsey dropped to the bench after completing 90 minutes for the first time since his return from injury on Wednesday night. Jack Wilshere was suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season against Hull. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came into the side instead. These two changes in the midfield indicated Wenger's focus on defending, with two defence-minded midfielders as double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This would release Sanchez into a more attacking role. The Frenchman has been emphasising the importance of clean sheets by stating that it is difficult to win a football match by scoring more goals than conceded, when you let in two goals every game.

The surprise inclusion in the squad was Theo Walcott, who made the bench for the first time since he was stretchered off with a ruptured cruciate knee ligament in the FA Cup third round against Tottenham at the beginning of January this year. In his pre-match interview, Wenger ruled him out of this match due to lack of competitive match time and assured the media of the Englishman's involvement in the next week's clash with Burnley. We suspected that Wenger's intention was to give Theo a run-out if Arsenal were cruising with no pressure in the closing stages of the game. Martinez, Bellerin, Rosicky, Campbell and Podolski occupied the remaining seats on the bench.

Arsenal enjoyed a large portion of possession in the first half, which was as much as some 70% in the opening 10 minutes or so. However, they struggled to find clear-cut chances as Sunderland defended deep, which was a natural reaction to such a big defeat that they have suffered recently. Then, Arsenal took the lead out of nothing. Alexis capitalised on Wes Brown's mistake and kept his cool to dink the ball over the former Gunner, Vito Mannone.

Falling behind, Sunderland came out to attack after the break, but this also presented us with opportunities to attack on the break at the same time. If our final balls had been better, especially Cazorla's finishing had been clinical, Arsenal could have won the game by a bigger margin, but we had to wait for a second goal to be completely relaxed until the third minute of stoppage time. We had to feel for Mannone who spent 8 years with Arsenal. At Doolan's Irish Bar, our goal celebration was rather subdued, but the final whistle brought a big cheer.

The two goals came from the opponents' errors and there is no denying that the Gunners were still far from their fluent best. However, we got the result we wanted and more importantly a clean sheet. Prior to the match, Per Mertesacker's comment that he lacked "motivation" after the Word Cup infuriated a section of Arsenal fans. However, as one of the fans pointed out, he probably meant "focus" rather than "motivation" and his "focus" in this game was spot on. His sliding challenge on van Aanholt was crucial as the subsequent clearance led to Brown's mistake and then our first goal. The clean sheet should help our defenders' confidence. When Gibbs was replaced after being injured the defence was reorganised and looked better balanced with Monreal playing in his proper role as left back, Chambers moving to the middle and Bellerin taking over at right back.

Looking back at the weekend results, winning all three points was imperative as Man City lost to West Ham at Upton Park earlier on Saturday, while Liverpool dropped two points to Hull at Anfield in a Saturday normal kick-off. Tottenham suffered a shock defeat to Newcastle at White Hart Lane at Sunday lunch-time, while Chelsea's victory was denied at the death by RVP's equaliser at Old Trafford on Sunday evening. It would have been great to see Chelsea's unbeaten run ended, but on the other hand, we didn't want to see Man U go a point ahead of us and gather momentum for their top-four finish aspiration.

We wouldn't like to repeat the old cliche used so often last season, "grinding out a result when you are not playing well is champions' trait". As we learnt last season from early February onwards, poor performances will eventually catch up with you. Arsenal need to start playing well quickly. Hopefully, we can build on this win now that our run of winnable games continues. The one thing for sure is that fifth place is closer to where we want to be than we have been this season.


Players ratings

Szczesny: 6
Rushing out unnecessarily in a situation well covered by our defenders, the Pole headed the ball straight at van Aanholt as he thought he was about to step outside his area. Thankfully, the full-back's attempt flew wide as Mertesacker ran to cover the goal. Other than that, he did his job all right against 3 shots on target created by Sunderland.

Chambers: 6
Struggled to contain Sunderland's attack on their left flank. Moved to the centre-back position on the departure of Kieran Gibbs in the 73rd minute and looked more comfortable in that position.

Mertesacker: 7
His concentration level was up to scratch in this game.

Monreal: 7
Made an impressive 5 interceptions and 9 clearances. Stood strong against a physical Sunderland side, but it was clear that he preferred playing as a left-back. He made a great run forward as soon as he had replaced an injured Kieran Gibbs at left-back.

Gibbs: 6
Picked up a knock (according to Wenger, it's a hip problem). He doesn't seem to be able to play 3 games running without getting injured and sidelined for a couple of weeks afterwards. Shame.


Flamini: 7
Tenacious. Made 6 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 66 passes with an impressive 95.5% passing accuracy.

Arteta: 7
Kept the ball well. Made 84 passes with a 89.3% passing success rate.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
Quiet game. His passing completion rate of 67.7% was extremely poor. Doesn't seem to be able to put consistent performances together.

Alexis: 9

Where would we be without him? His persistent chase forced mistakes from Wes Brown and Vito Mannone. Had 5 shots, 3 of which were on target, and made 2 key passes. On the defensive side, the Chile international was also impressive with 5 tackles and 2 interceptions. He was Whoscored.com's Man of the Match with a 9.7 rating.

Cazorla: 5
His finishing was woeful. Despite time and space he had with a clear sight of goal, some of his finishes were utterly appalling.

Welbeck: 6
Made 4 key passes. Had 2 shots, 1 of which was not too far off the target. Can anybody explain why he was shown a yellow card?


Subs

Bellerin: 6
Came on the pitch in the 73rd minute for an injured Kieran Gibbs. His first contribution was giving the ball away, but he tracked back quickly and won it back. Made a good run, but his cross was poor.

Ramsey: 6
Replaced Arteta in the 87th minute. Made a great breaking run. Had 1 shot and made 1 key pass.

Podolski: 6
Replaced the Ox in the 89th minute. No time to make an impact. Made just 1 touch.