Goal: Cazorla (35)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Jenkinson (RB), Sagna (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla(LF), Giroud (CF).
Arsenal battled their way to victory at the Stadium of Light after they were reduced to 10 man with Jenkinson sent off with two bookable offenses with half an hour to go. Targeted by Sunderland’s systematic agricultural tackling, Jack Wilshere hobbled off with a thigh injury and was replaced by Abou Diaby early in the second half.
To say that Arsenal dominated the first half would be an understatement. What kept the game as a contest after a blistering Arsenal display in the first 45 minutes were Simon Mignolet’s two wonder saves from Ramsey and the wastefulness of Arsenal’s front line. Despite Arsenal starting the game with the make-shift centerback pairing of Sagna and Mertesacker (as Koscielny was withdrawn from the starting XI during the warm-up with a calf problem), the visitors looked mostly comfortable defensively in the first half (except a few occasions Sessegnon ran at Monreal). With Arteta screening the area in front of Arsenal’s defense and Cazorla dropping narrow from his wide left position to give an extra man in the center, Arsenal were able to orchestrate brilliant and sometimes breathtaking attacking moves which yielded 7 shots on target in the first half. In contrast, Sunderland’s only attempt at goal in the first half was a weak looping header by Fletcher easily saved by Szczesny.
As early as the second minute, when Lee Cattermole chopped Ramsey and sent him flying into orbit with a tackle more mistimed than a Gervinho header (just a yellow card), Walcott picked up the loose ball, cut inside O’Shea and fired a low left-footed drive saved by Mignolet. A minute later, after good work by Ramsey and Giroud released Walcott, the winger fired from a narrow angle and was again denied by the Belgian goalie.
With Cattermole living dangerously and unable to contain Arsenal’s fluid movement, Sunderland players took turns to physically intimidate Arsenal’s two main runners with the ball, Wilshere and Walcott, with what they call “robust but fair” challenges. A curious sequence of events in the 7th minute illustrated the referee Anthony Taylor’s utter incompetence in dealing with Sunderland’s dirty tackling. When Gardner tried to run with the ball on Sunderland’s right, he was tackled by Cazorla and lost the ball. As Aaron Ramsey picked up the loose ball, he was caught at his ankle by Sessegnon on the touchline, after he played the ball towards Wilshere. Before the young star could control the ball, Titus Bramble charged at Wilshere with a brutal sliding tackle and swept him off the field while clearing the ball. Cazorla and Arteta then worked the ball to the opposite flank and Walcott started a surging run only to be fouled by Danny Rose with the referee inexplicably not blowing his whistle again. When Sunderland counterattacked with Collback on their left, Jenkinson who was clearly frustrated with three brutal fouls in 20 seconds not given, fouled Collback with a late tackle and received a yellow card! It was a foul and it was a yellow card, but it was the referee turning a blind eye to too many Sunderland fouls that had created it.
Sunderland’s ‘robust’ tackling, though, did not do much to stop Arsenal’s excellent passing and movement in the final third. As the half progressed, the Black Cats were reduced to chasing shadows. The diagram below gives an idea about the effectiveness and fluency of Arsenal’s attacking. Santi Cazorla completed more passes in the final third than the entire Sunderland team in the first half! The Arsenal passing quartet Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere poked holes through Sunderland’s central midfield trio of Collback, N’Diaye and Cattermole at will during the first 45 minutes.
After Mignolet produced a wonder save from a long range Ramsey rocket to the top corner, Arsenal duly took the lead that they deserved. Wilshere received the ball close to the center circle and burst forward gliding past Collback, N’Diaye and Cattermole with ease. He found Walcott’s lateral run in front of the box. The winger received the ball facing away from the goal, took a clever touch and laid it off for Cazorla to blast home with his left foot.
Arsenal should have finished off the contest before half time. First, a mesmerizing move started by Cazorla saw Arteta exchange passes with Giroud and release Wilshere on the left. Wilshere’s first time low cross to the far post was intercepted by Rose before Walcott could finish into an empty net. Then, Monreal and Giroud won the ball back near the corner flag, and the French striker laid it off to Walcott whose shot missed the post by a small margin. In the extra minute of half time, Giroud cut inside with the ball from the left and played Ramsey in. The Welshman’s point blank shot from 6 yards was miraculously saved by Mignolet.
Sunderland started the second half more positively, with Cattermole replaced by Larsson and they had a penalty appeal turned down when Sessegnon tumbled in the box after driving past Monreal. Five minutes into second half, Wilshere went down as he received an off the ball knee by N’Diaye after attempting a give and go, and asked to be replaced. Wenger sent in Diaby replacing his most important asset.
Arsenal’s fluency in midfield dwindled quickly after losing Wilshere as Sunderland pushed forward with more hunger and determinism than skill. They were clearly heartened by the fact that Wilshere was not on the pitch anymore. Just before the hour mark, Ramsey lost the ball in Arsenal’s half to Sessegnon who played Fletcher through, but fortunately for Arsenal, the striker shot wide from close range. In central midfield Diaby looked operational but he was slow in possession in the face of increasing Sunderland pressure. In the 62nd minute, Arsenal had another setback when Jenkinson naively chopped Sessegnon down and was sent off receiving his second yellow card in the game. Arsene Wenger reacted by moving Ramsey to the right back position. The Welshman had his critics, including myself, for mistakes in his game that he mostly corrected recently, but one admirable thing about him is that he always does his best whatever is asked of him, and he just did really well despite facing a tricky winger like Sessegnon.
Martin O’Neill scented blood and sent in his second striker Graham to pair with Fletcher as Sunderland continued to attack. Yet, Arsenal could have made the scoreline safer when Walcott hit the post after being put through by a sublime Cazorla ball. Despite being 10 man, Arsenal were able to create further chances with Abou Diaby failing to score from Monreal’s cutback and Cazorla missing the far post after skilful foot work in the box.
In the last 20 minutes, Arsenal were tested defensively to their limit and they did extremely considering Sagna was playing centerback, Ramsey right back, and it was the new left back Monreal’s only second Premiere league game. Sagna especially won header after header and made countless vital interceptions. Sczsesny also made two insane saves: First, Fletcher blocked Mertesacker’s clearance with his arms (no handball given of course) and the Polish goalie denied the Scot from close range. Sunderland continued to bombard Arsenal’s box with corners, set pieces and long crosses. When Titus Bramble headed the ball back to danger zone following a corner, Fletcher’s point blank header was incredibly tipped over by Sczcesny. Arsenal did still threaten on the break and wasted presentable chances through Cazorla and Giroud, but the last 10 minutes looked like a medieval siege with Arsenal’s make-shift defense resisting desperate Sunderland attacks and securing very important three points. The whole team played very well in testing circumstances, but Bacary Sagna at centerback and Szczesny were simply heroic.