Sunderland 1 Arsenal 0
Since the fixture list reared its fresh summery face in June, I always had this down as a potential defeat, as borne out by my expressions that a draw would be a good result for much of the last week. Wenger had spoken portentially about injuries at the dawning of the international break and sure enough, players were lost in the line of duty for their countries. Sunderland away after an international break would have been a trifling fixture for any of the top four and, though I was ultimately disappointed at the result, I didn't find it as gut wrenching as the self destructive defeats in Manchester. In fact, I didn't feel there was much informative of the defeat or that it exposed any endemic problems, bar our continued refusal to concentrate at set pieces. This was the first time this season that Arsenal did not register on the scoresheet which is not a problem I see continuing in any serious way.
Arsenal do appear to suffer more greatly than our closer rivals after such breaks. I would suspect largely due to two reasons, one being that we don't hold the same mental fortitude as United and Chelsea. The second possibly being that Wenger is more of an idealist than Ferguson or Chelsea and does not find convenient injuries for his players when international friendlies roll around. (Terry and Lampard both miraculously shook off knocks to start yesterday). The journey was a sleepy one, having been out celebrating the birthday of a couple of friends in Central London until the early hours of Saturday morning, a cold shower and a cup of team were my only respite before leaving a dreary, wind swept London at 5am to join the coach. Arsene left Andrey Arshavin on the bench- doubtless taking into account the disappointment he would have felt with Russia on Wednesday night, whilst Sagna and Gallas did start despite playing extra time in a draining match for France.
But the Gunners started in very spritely fashion indeed and Sunderland looked to be the world weary ones. After just fuve minutes, Arsenal should have ruffled the Wearsiders net, Nasri flipped a pass out to Sagna on the right, his much improved crossing was elucidated with a whipping back post delivery, Fabregas impressively stretched his legs to flick the ball into the path of Rosicky, but he blasted his shot straight at Fulop from ten yards out. Had he placed the ball either side of the Estonian keeper, the away support would have been celebrating rather than grumbling regretfully into ther bovrils. Ten minutes later, the Gunners went close again. Armand Traore had his shot blocked from the corner of the box, the ball fell to Fabregas who smashed a rising first time shot inches over the bar. With van Persie in disposed and Arshavin on the bench, much of the responsibility was on the crown jewels of our little triumvirate.
The home side had looked cumbersome and weary but the home support shamed most of us that spend every other week at the Emirates. They actually encouraged their players vocally and, bingo, it bought a rise out of the Mackems players. Andy Reid jinked past an exhausted looking Sagna down the Sunderland left and hooked over a cross which saw Armand Traore well out of position, leaving Malbranque a free shot on goal, fortunately, he misconnected and lashed wildly over. But the game's finest opportunity to date would come from the cauldron of Arsenal's stand out performer. Alex Song bought the ball forward with purpose and vigour, playing a delicate one two with Eduardo on the edge of the area, before dinking the ball back into Eduardo again, he cut inside Bardsley but dinked his finish narrowly wide of the Sunderland post. It was one of the few occasions Arsenal had looked decisive and assured in the area, Nasri and Rosicky bought back an unwelcome facet that had dogged our play before the signing of Arshavin. We over elaborated in the crucial areas, Nasri and Rosicky were often guilty of taking too many touches or of trying to walk the ball in. Something Arshavin and van Persie had bought to our forward play was an incisiveness in the area, the ability to see a pass or a shot and make it quickly. Rosicky was uncharacteristically, too cute on occasion, whilst Nasri still looks to be playing his way back into match fitness.
The first half petered out, Fabregas hit another shot over the bar, whilst Ramsey's bouncing volley from Traore's cross did not much trouble Fulop. The second half saw Arsenal limbs begin to tire even further. Arshavin was bought on for Ramsey as Arsenal tried to find a creative spark, but a lack of willing runners in behind defenders left Fabregas with too much to do by himself. Despite it having been a bitty match, you felt that one goal would come along. On 71 minutes it did. Andy Reid swung in an excellent delivery, Bent won the first header against Vermaelen, his header hit an unmarked Fraizer Campbell and fell invitingly back into his path and Bent continued his scoring odyssey against the top four with a well taken finish. For Arsenal's part, Sunderland had three unchallenged touches of the ball, eight yards from our goal from a corner when there were nine Arsenal players in the area. I've said in previous weeks that defending isn't always as much about formations as it is a mentality. That Arsenal have let cheap goals slip to set pieces when winning games comfortably informed a malaise that led to Tomas Rosicky standing idly by and watching as Bent ran onto a slowly moving ball in the area. One can't blame having three centre forwards for poor defending when all but one of those centre forwards is back in the area.
With Eduardo proving too stationary to make a difference, Vela was bought on in his palce as Walcott replaced Rosicky. Wenger needed someone to try and push the Sunderland line back and ultimately Walcott managed it- even if he didn't always manage to bring the ball under his spell. Instantly, Fabregas spotted Theo's run and played a ball into him on the right flank, Walcott spun a low cross in but no Arsenal player had taken a chance on getting in the penalty area. (Think of van Persie's two recent goals against Spurs, Walcott's delivery would have supplemented such a run by an Arsenal player). It was again left to Alex Song to provide a much needed creative spark, he showed great fortitude to win a physical battel with Richardson in midfield, cut the ball back onto his left foot and clipped an excellent ball into the onrushing Arshavin, who could only steer the ball a fraction wide. Arsenal were still having trouble though raising the tempo despite the desperation of the situation. Vela threw in another excellent low cross which predictably nobody had bothered to try and run onto. A Fabregas cross was met with a fierce volley from Vermaelen which flew wide. In the sixy seconds previous to that chance, Vermaelen had twice headed the ball down in the box to find nobody trying to get on the end of it, so it's instructive as to why he tried a shot from such an angle.
Arsenal should have had an injury time penalty when Richardson clipped Vela's feet in the area. Wiley eas excellently positioned but waved play on. Vela was again wrestled in the penalty area even further into injury time but again Wiley turned down Arsenal appeals. It's no coincidence that Arsenal have not had a penalty since Eduardo's tumble against Celtic. That's one of the prices we will have to pay for that situation and I remarked at the time that that would be Eduardo's and our ultimate punishment. The final whistle sealed our misery. It was clear that we lacked sharpness in the final third following an international break. Sunderland have beaten Liverpool and came incredibly close to winning at Old Trafford this season, so it was not the massive surprise Radio Five Live seemed to think it was as we boarded the coach home. A draw would have been a fairer result, but in Darren Bent, Sunderland have an incredibly clinical finisher. Bent took his only chance, Eduardo missed his by inches. Such are the breaks sometimes in football. We had the players to cause Sunderland problems even without van Persie (lest we forget that Kenwyne Jones was also in a watching brief yesterday, as was half of Sunderland's first choice back four). It really means we have to beat Chelsea next week to stay in touch at the top, but further refusal to concentrate at the back will be punished ruthlessly. The team have bounced back from their set backs so far this season, let's hope they have the fortitude to do so again.LD.
Team: 1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 30.TRAORE, 17.SONG, 4.FABREGAS(c), 16.RAMSEY (23.Arshavin '56), 8.NASRI, 7.ROSICKY (14.Walcott '71), 9.EDUARDO (12.Vela '71). Unused: 15.Denilson, 18.Silvestre, 24.Mannone, 27.Eboue.