Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday February 10 2013
Arsenal`s fixture list becomes very London centric for the next month or so, but before a run of more local affairs, the long trip to Sunderland still had to be negotiated. The 8.12 train from King`s Cross was crowded with cautiously optimistic Gooners on a ground where we don`t have a particularly good record. Arriving in Sunderland shortly before 12noon, our plans to drink in the William Jameson pre match were thwarted by their lack of television screens. Instead, we chose the Wheatsheaf, over the Wear Bridge and much closer to the Stadium of Light. In retrospect, the steady flow of Jager bombs were probably a bad idea.
Sunderland welcomed Lee Cattermole back into the side after a knee injury. He managed to refrain from booting somebody for a whopping 90 seconds before savagely taking out Aaron Ramsey. How on earth this boneheaded thug is making a living in the Premier League I`ve no idea. Laurent Koscielny pulled out in the warm up for Arsenal, so Bacary Sagna played centre half, with Jenkinson at right back. Podolski was on the bench with Cazorla playing on the left of a midfield four of sorts. The away fans have now been moved into the North Stand upper and it`s a strange arrangement. Beer has to be purchased at kiosks a flight of stairs down from where are seats were. The turnstiles had some incredibly odd numbering too. Arsenal again wore their yellow third kit, which they have worn more times than the purple number. I`m not too fussed about shirts nowadays, but it might be an idea if our next away kit is something we can actually use?
Post international fixtures always seem to bring the worst out in Arsenal, but right from the start they were focused and exerted themselves on a drab Sunderland side. (Is a Martin O`Neill side ever anything else?) Following Cattermole`s assault on Ramsey, the ball dropped to Theo Walcott, who cut inside two Mackems defenders, but saw his left footed effort saved by Mignolet. Mignolet again denied Walcott when Ramsey`s pass dribbled through to Theo, O`Shead seemed to have nicked it away from him, but Giroud manfully thought to win the ball back and slipped to Walcott in the channel. His strike stung Mignolet`s palms from a tight angle.
Sunderland`s response was a physical one and referee Anthony Taylor appallingly encouraged their robustness. Two heavy Sunderland tackles on Ramsey and then Wilshere went unpunished, before Walcott was clearly taken down by Danny Rose with Taylor bafflingly waving play on. It was all a bit much for Carl Jenkinson, who reacted by taking down Adam Johnson. It was inexperience from Jenkinson and, in isolation, a deserved booking. But given what had proceeded it thirty seconds earlier, it wasn`t even a foul. Maddening inconsistency from the referee whose number 1 priority is to ensure the safety of all participants in the match.
Arsenal continued pressing Sunderland and ought to have taken the lead when Wilshere`s probing pass found Giroud in the channel, he fired across the goal and beyond the far post when he really ought to have scored. The Black Cats couldn`t live with Cazorla, Walcott, Giroud and Wilshere`s fluidity. Wilshere again glided forwards to the edge of the Sunderland box, back heeled for Ramsey who saw his powerful shot clawed away by Mignolet. However, soon enough the Gunners did make their dominance count. Wilshere found Walcott at the lip of the home side`s penalty area, where he had been drifting in field to create havoc all afternoon. He looked to line up a shot, but changed his mind as Cazorla roared towards him. Walcott teed him up and Santi made no mistake, blasting a cool, low strike into the bottom corner with his left foot. The goal whetted the Gunners` appétite Nacho won possession back from Craig Gardner next to the corner flag and nodded the ball to Giroud. The Frenchman looked up and found Theo Walcott again on the edge of Sunderland`s box and his low shot was drilled agonisingly wide of the upright.
Arsenal`s best chance came right at the end of the half. Giroud`s cute through ball found Ramsey all alone inside the area, but Mignolet flew out to his feet and made a great block. It was a very satisfying first half performance, with Arsenal carving out chance after chance and Sunderland offering no significant threat. But you couldn`t help wonder if Arsenal`s less than clinical finishing might come back to haunt them. The home side slightly came back into the game in the second period. Sessegnon really ought to have been booked for diving under a non-existent challenge from Nacho Monreal. Again Anthony Taylor betrayed his vertebrae status. Finally The Black Cats` clogging brought about some of its desired effect as N`Diaye`s sly knee into Wilshere`s thigh caused him to come off clutching a dead leg.
Giroud hit a vicious shot just wide from the corner of the Mackems box, whilst Steven Fletcher wasted a presentable chance for Sunderland. The otherwise excellent Aaron Ramsey dithered on the ball in midfield and Sessegnon raced away, he found Steven Fletcher who sliced his shot wide when he ought to have shot across the keeper. Cazorla curled a shot just wide after a deft 1-2 with Diaby, but on 65 minutes, there was a twist in a hitherto Arsenal dominated plot. Jenkinson was caught square on Sessegnon and mistimed his tackle on the Benin forward. A surefire second yellow card and it meant Arsenal were down to ten men. Aaron Ramsey moved to right back, with Sagna staying at centre half. Initially Podolski had been stripped to come on, but Wenger reneged on this change in light of circumstance. Sagna`s display at centre half showed that reports of his demise are premature. As Jenkinson found, playing right back is a tough gig at Arsenal with no real right winger to speak of.
Whereas the first hour had been all about the movement of Wilshere, Walcott, Cazorla and Giroud, the last half an hour was all about the nous of Arteta the tirelessness of Aaron Ramsey and the brilliance of Sagna and Szczesny. Sagna in particular made countless headed clearances and saving tackles, Szczesny made match winning saves, whoscored has Nacho Monreal down as having made six interceptions in the match and the team became defensively responsible as they looked to protect a make shift backline. But Arsenal still had chances to make the game safe. Diaby should have done better after a 1-2 with Monreal and Cazorla volleyed just over after being fed by Ramsey on the right.
Ramsey looks like a different player in recent weeks. Playing in a deeper midfield role has helped him to simplify his game (he was punished on the one occasion he allowed old bad habits to get the better of him, which will hopefully be salutary). Maybe serving something of an apprenticeship on the wing has helped him too. We were again left clasping our heads high in the North Stand as Cazorla`s gorgeous through ball sent Walcott clear. He arrived at the ball just before Mignolet but could only toe the ball onto the post.
From here Arsenal had to grit their teeth and show some determination. Fletcher charged down Mertesacker`s clearance, which left him clean through on goal. But Szczesny`s senses were alive, he was out quickly and spread himself at Fletcher`s feet to save. Giroud headed Johnson`s corner to the cusp of the Arsenal area, Bramble headed it back into the danger zone, where Steven Fletcher had a free header from six yards. Szczesny pulled off an outstanding stop to thrust the ball over the bar. Our nerves had to survive another rendezvous with the shredder when Johnson`s corner was clawed at by Szczesny, Fletcher scuffed the ball back into the six yard box where Bramble wildly swiped wide with the goal gaping at his mercy. Szczesny was then on hand to beat away Johnson`s left footed drive from range.
But Arsenal held firm for a very satisfying and deserved victory. It had a bit of everything, we carved Sunderland open at will at times and moved the ball quickly in midfield. After the red card we showed the requisite grit and defensive nous to hold on for the victory. The only complaint would be the profligacy, which could have cost us dearly. Sunderland ought to have been out of sight well before the red card and even after it. playing a four man midfield of sorts looks very much the way to go for away games and tougher home games for me. It allows Arsenal to monopolise possession and move the ball quickly between our midfielders and forwards. We rushed back to Sunderland station, three points and a case of beers secured. With Spurs winning and Everton losing, it was a crucial three points indeed. LD.
SUNDERLAND: 22.MIGNOLET, 8.GARDNER, 19.BRAMBLE, 16.O`SHEA (c), 3.ROSE (15.Vaughan `81), 14.COLBACK, 6.CATTERMOLE (c) (7.Larsson h/t), 4.N`DIAYE (10.Graham `68), 11.JOHNSON, 28.SESSEGNON, 26.FLETCHER. Unused: 2.Bardsley, 18.Mangane, 20.Westwood, 24.Cuellar.
ARSENAL: 1.SZCZESNY, 25.JENKINSON, 4.MERTESACKER, 3.SAGNA, 17.MONREAL, 8.ARTETA (c), 16.RAMSEY, 10.WILSHERE (2.Diaby `50), 14.WALCOTT (54.Miquel `87), 19.S.CAZORLA, 12.GIROUD. Unused: 7.Rosicky, 9.Podolski, 15.Chamberlain, 24.Mannone.
Date:Sunday February 10 2013
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