Sunderland 2 Arsenal 0
With a journey to Sunderland for the second time in seven days, sandwiched between a midweek trip to Milan, so completed what I had worked out to be 3,280 miles of travelling in 7 days to watch Arsenal. Whilst the train took us to Wearside last week and of course the plane flew us to Milan, it was automobile time for the journey to the North East for a 5th Round cup tie. Terry collected me from Streatham Hill at shortly after 9.30am, my clutch of Red Stripe in tow for the long drive up the M1.
Having picked up Young Tim from Archway and cracked open the tinnies (the driver excluded, obviously) there was only one thing left for it. To play the Happy Days theme tune at full volume as we joined the motorway. Conversation began to take a turn for the surreal when we proposed that Football Factory might be transformed into an engaging West End musical, so it was probably just as well the drive was smooth and swift, arriving in Sunderland at shortly before 3.15pm and back to the Grange pub for a few pre match liveners.
Arsene went for a strong line up, with the desperately off form Walcott deservedly dropped for his idle midweek showing. Francis Coquelin came in for the understandably rusty Kieran Gibbs, whilst Gervinho returned. The start was promising; with the visitors looking as though they meant business. After just three minutes, van Persie won a free kick on the edge of the area. Mikel Arteta whipped his effort just past the post with Mignolet sprawling. But plans started to go awry as Francis Coquelin hit the turf with a pulled hamstring. His second hamstring injury in a month. A reshuffle was necessary, with Squillaci moving to centre half and Vermaelen moving to left back.
Understandably, the change was disruptive. On a bumpy surface and in tempestuous conditions, Squillaci looked rusty and misjudged many an aerial duel. Djourou too found the conditions difficult and Sunderland sensed that to their advantage. Sessegnon curled one just after having nicked past Squillaci and Fabianski was down smartly to hold McLean`s cross with Sessegnon lurking. The Gunners were struggling to impose themselves but ought to have taken the lead just after the half hour mark. Van Persie played a clever reverse ball to find the run of Gervinho. The Ivorian took a touch in the right channel before firing a goalward shot which Mignolet plucked out to safety.
Five minutes before half time, defensive uncertainty would be Arsenal`s undoing. Djourou misjudged a through ball and was forced to haul Gardner down on the edge of the Sunderland area. Larsson`s free kick was flicked half clear by Vermaelen, but his interception only found Kieran Richardson, whose keen left footed drive ricocheted in off the unfortunate Squillaci and into the bottom corner. Arsenal were rattled and Colback headed Larsson`s back post cross into the path of McLean, but he could only prod into the side netting. Half time was welcome relief given the head of steam Sunderland had built. Aaron Ramsey gingerly jogged through the half time break with a troublesome ankle. Neither he nor Squillaci would last more than 6 minutes of the half, both hobbling off.
Bitter as it sounds, it`s impossible to ignore the fact that Sunderland`s pitch claimed four Arsenal victims in seven days. Rosicky came on for Ramsey and Squillaci was replaced by Walcott, who assumed the central striker role he`s been wibbling on about playing since time immemorial. Predictably he played it totally ineffectively. Understandable to the extent that Sunderland were playing deep, rendering Theo ineffective. Yet it was also a damning indictment of a one dimensional player. His negotiating hand in contract talks weakens by the week. It was a baffling swap. Walcott was never going to be able to get the space he needs to cause any damage. Arshavin or Benayoun would surely have been much better bets.
The second half rather petered out into a faceless sludge. Arsenal enjoyed 71% possession. I struggle to think of a meaningful opening in the second half. Sunderland sat deep, soaked up pressure. Arsenal knocked the ball around and prayed that van Persie would produce a piece of individual brilliance. You know the script by now, right? The Gunners toiled and attacked. Nobody can doubt their effort. But they posed about as much threat as a water pistol. As Arsenal pushed, Sunderland capitalised on the counter. 29% possession for the home side. Two goals. One goal for every 14.5%. Chamberlain conceded possession in his own half. Sessegnon powered on. Arteta tried and failed to bring him down. Sessegnon knocked the ball right to Larsson. His shot hit the post then cannoned into the net via Chamberlain, who was at least sprinting back to atone for his error. Not one Arsenal player consoled him.
Arsenal tried to muster a vague response but it was all so predictable and they tumbled meekly out of the Cup. The last chance for glory- in the sense of the word that I understand it- for another season. I say that, because of course we will be told that the race for 4th place is the be all and end all for the season. I`m not so convinced. I think this piece by Tim Clark at Arse2Mousesums it up nicely. It`s hard to get excited about finishing 4th. We`re told it will yield increasing revenues. But we don`t use the funds it generates. We`re told we need it to attract players. Yet me conduct a transfer policy befitting of mediocrity. We`re told we need it to keep our best players. But every summer a few more first team players peel away, one by one confirming that they have lost faith in the Arsenal project.
The more I think of it, the more I think the Europa League is the way to go. There`ll be no mass exodus if we don`t qualify for the Champions League because most of the players won`t be that coveted. The captain will go, but he will probably go anyway and I won`t blame him one bit. His shoulders must ache from carrying this lot. One look at a reinvigorated Fabregas- playing carefree football and scoring goals for fun in a team surrounded by class will have van Persie curious I am sure. I believe Andy Dusfrane in Shawshank Redemption said it best. Some birds shouldn`t be caged, their feathers are just too bright.
A run in the Europa League might help the club reassert its purpose. We might stand a chance of winning it. The game is about glory. Right now, we`re making up the numbers. Don`t get me wrong, we`re making up some well heeled numbers, with fine furnishings and all mod cons. But it`s hard not to feel bored with this groundhog day scenario. As supporters, we`re materially wealthy with the club we support. But I feel increasingly emotionally malnourished. Told to love the plush soft furnishings and 40 inch TV screen, when really I yearn to scrape my knees in the garden with my friends. Maybe we`re all spoiled, but supporting Arsenal doesn`t feel like a lot of fun at the moment. I don`t know what the answer to that is. I don`t honestly know if changing the board, the manager, the CEO or the cleaning lady will solve that. All I know is that something has to change. Because every season is becoming increasingly circular and predictable. LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 5.VERMAELEN, 39.COQUELIN (18.Squillaci '7, 14.Walcott `51), 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 16.RAMSEY (7.Rosicky `51), 15.CHAMBERLAIN, 27.GERVINHO, 10.v.PERSIE (c). Unused: 13.Szczesny, 23.Arshavin, 29.Chamakh, 30.Benayoun.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA