Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal
Arsene Wenger’s side, so often maligned for possessing a soft underbelly and capitulating under pressure, showed real grit and determination on Saturday, to fight till the very end and secure a vital victory away at Sunderland.
As the old saying goes, this was a real game of two halves, with the Gunners displaying different but equally impressive characteristics in each 45 minute period. In the first half, Arsenal showcased the attacking flair which has been distinctly missing at times this season, as they completely dominated the opposition. The midfield quintet of Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta, Cazorla and Walcott were exceptional as their exquisite passing and movement outfoxed Sunderland time and time again, with the Gunners simply toying with the home side and attacking at will.
Arsenal began their bombardment of the Sunderland goal in the very first minute. The referee played the advantage following Lee Catermole’s horrible tackle on Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott almost gave the away side the lead, as he cut inside before unleashing a powerful low effort on goal which Mignolet had to collect at the second attempt. Walcott exuded confidence every time he had the ball, his sumptuous pace a constant threat to the Sunderland defence and minutes after his first effort on goal, the young Englishman was at it again, this time being denied by Mignolet at the near post, following Giroud’s neat through ball.
The Frenchman was also in impressive form on Saturday, as he held the ball up well and his often excellent link up play enabled the Arsenal midfield to push forward with confidence. Giroud’s ability to pick out a through ball has already enabled him to reach double figures for assists this season and he could have added to his tally on the stroke of halftime as Ramsey latched onto the Frenchman’s pass but with only Mignolet to beat, the Welshman fired straight at the goalkeeper. As with the rest of the team, the only negative aspect of Giroud’s performance on Saturday was his finishing. He dragged an effort wide of goal in the first half, when he should have made the goalkeeper work and towards the end of the game blazed high over the bar when through on goal.
Although each member of the Gunners midfield performed admirably on Saturday, particularly in the first half, as they interchanged like a well-oiled machine, the standout performer was once again Jack Wilshere. The Englishman possesses everything one could ever hope for in a world class midfielder. Vision, strength, power, passion, hunger and desire are just a few of the words which could be used to describe his all-round game. In the first half on Saturday, he was the fulcrum of almost every Arsenal attack. Wilshere’s cutback to Ramsey, whose performances have improved of late, allowed the Welshman to let fly from distance, only to be denied by a wonderful save from Mignolet, before the young Englishman powered past two Sunderland players in the centre of the field, passed the ball into Walcott on the edge of the box, who duly set up Cazorla to fire low and hard past Mignolet to give the Gunners a deserved lead.
Arsenal had been truly magnificent in the first period, the only negative being that at times they tended to overplay in the final third and as a result only had a one goal advantage at the interval when the game really should have been out of sight.
Having been so impressive in the first half, the second 45 minutes presented the Gunners with the stiff challenge of having to grind out a result, without the talismanic Jack Wilshere, forced off through injury and down to ten men following Carl Jenkinson’s red card. Yet Arsenal refused to wilt under pressure and impressively rose to the challenge, as Sunderland besieged the Gunners penalty area with dangerous in-swinging deliveries from both corners and free kicks. Bacary Sagna, who was thrust into the centre of defence minutes before kick-off, following Koscielny’s injury in the warm up, was absolutely outstanding alongside Per Mertesacker. The Frenchman, who has endured an indifferent season so far, won several aerial challenges and was often the first to react to any second balls in the box, making a number of vital last ditch tackles too.
On the few occasions that Sunderland were able to breach the Arsenal defence they were thwarted by the outstanding Wojciech Szczesny. In the early stages of the second half the Polish international came off his line to claim a corner and completely missed the ball. Fortunately Sunderland were unable to punish the Gunners and Szczesny never looked back, producing several excellent saves to deny the hosts’ top scorer, Steven Fletcher. First, having charged down Mertesacker’s attempted clearance with his hands, the Scotsman’s goal-bound effort was well saved by Szczesny’s outstretched legs. Moments later Arsenal’s number one sensationally tipped over Fletcher’s header, when the Sunderland striker seemed destined to score, before parrying Adam Johnston’s powerful low effort away from goal.
Yet despite going down to 10 men, the Gunners were still able to mount an attacking threat and had numerous opportunities to double their lead. The best of which arrived in the 75th minute, as Cazorla played a wonderful ball through to Walcott on the edge of the box. However as Mignolet rushed off his line, the Englishman decided not to take the ball round the Sunderland goalkeeper and instead prodded it just underneath the Belgian, only to see his effort come back off the post, to leave the nerves of the Arsenal faithful jangling.
Arsene Wenger could be immensely proud of his players at the final whistle. For once, when faced with adversity, they had come together and fought tooth and nail to secure a much deserved victory. The fact that not one player shirked his defensive duties and to a man the Gunners stood up and were counted should be a source of immense pride for both the manager and supporters. This game also marked the second successive match in which the opposition has attempted to bully the Arsenal midfield with strong, hard tackling in an attempt to intimidate them and disrupt their fluid passing. However on both occasions, against Stoke and Sunderland, the Gunners have simply made a mockery of these rough house tactics, simply riding the challenges and continuing to play their own game. If Wenger’s side continue in this vein, they may just dispel the commonly held assumption that Arsenal don’t like it up them.