Monday, 11 February 2013

Arsenal show they're up for the fight for fourth

There's not many people who will tell you they had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in Sunderland, but Arsenal - in our own unique, stress producing way - did just that yesterday.

The North East is always a tough place to go, but for the second year in succession we have left the Stadium of Shite with a much needed three points.

After a great start, It was perhaps somewhat surprising that Santi Cazorla's strike in the 38th minute was the solitary goal of the afternoon, but a red card to Carl Jenkinson, plus the loss of Wilshere shortly after half time, ensured that we were not going to make it an easy day at the office.

For the first time in a while, we started the game with a sense of urgency and quickly started to dominate the early proceedings.

Walcott came close with some early shots, whilst Giroud should have done better with an effort that was driven across Mignolet's goal, but it was the fluent, cohesive passing that stood out.

It may have only been against Lee Cattermole and a small ginger kid, but Arsenal's attacking movement was its best its been for a while. Arteta, Ramsey and Wilshere were amazing in midfield with quick short passing moves. They cleverly linked up with the front men too, as Cazorla and Walcott were constantly posing a threat, whilst Giroud's hold up play was exactly what was needed in a tricky away trip.

After one particularly impressive move, with fluent one touch play, Ramsey forced a great save from Mignolet. but the goal seemed to be coming. A great surging run from Jack, as he danced his way through the midfield opened up space for Walcott, who controlled well before passing back to Cazorla, who drilled a fizzing shot into the corner of the net.

It could, and should, have been more than 1-0 at the break, but the way Arsenal midfield had controlled the game, and the surprising solidity of our makeshift defence, meant we were all confident of a win come full time.

However in a particularly Arsenal-esque manner, we decided to make things difficult for ourselves.

First, Jack limped off after being kicked once too many by the shadows in Sunderland's midfield. Hopefully its just precautionary, and afterwards Wenger stressed that he'd be out for days rather than weeks, but the fact remains that he shouldn't have played 90 minutes in midweek in what was a meaningless game. Surely Hodgson wants whats best for Wilshere, and at this moment 90 minutes of football in a meaningless friendly was not best for Jack. In his post match press conference Arsene was quick to place some criticism on the refereeing, who rarely give Jack enough protection.

It was the Manchester City game where they systematically, consistently fouled him as distrusted our attacking moves. Other sides have also started to pin point Jack as our main threat, and referees should really strive to give him the right protection he deserves under the laws of the game.

As we were coming to terms with the loss of Jack, a much improved Sunderland side following the break decided to try and play some football. Sessegnon was always a threat whenever he ran at our defence, and as he ran at Jenkinson, who had already been booked, he drew a foul. Carl was sent off in a decision that its quite hard to argue with, but looking at some the the fouls committed by Sunderland yesterday and the amount of booking thy picked up, it's also difficult to say that the referee was consistent with his cards.

Anyway, now there was a real contest. With Sagna already slotting in at central defence, and only the yourhful presence of the untested Ignasi Miquel on the bench, Arsene moved Ramsey to right back, and deployed a 4-4-1 system. Arteta and Diaby shielded the defence, whilst Santi, Giroud and Theo could counter and try to secure the decisive second goal.

For the last 30 minutes there was something of a cup-tie atmosphere in the ground, and it was very end to end stuff. Walcott hit the post, whilst Giroud and Cazorla had slightly take efforts on goal for Arsenal, whilst Sunderland threatened with an aerial bombardment on our box.

Some superb Sczesny saves were needed to make sure of the victory, but Arsenal's makeshift defence stood firm to deny Fletcher, Graham and co. and secure an important victory.

Sagna will rightly be heralded after an amazing display in the centre of defence. He was aggressive and no-nonsense in the tackle, whilst he was always in the right position, displaying an intelligence and experience that was needed for the occasion. Throughout the game, he didn't put a foot wrong, and was the main catalyst for what some people were calling our best defensive performance of the season. Mertesacker was also back to his best, and dominated in the air. Monreal also produced another impressive performance, successfully illustrating his defensive positioning, but Jenkinson and Ramsey also stood firm at right back meaning we actually had a solid defensive unit for once.

It may have been close, slightly too close for my nerves anyway. But Arsenal showed two different, yet equally important sides of our game that will be needed to ensure we reach the top four this season.

The attacking fluidity that we showed will surely produce more goals as the season goes on. Especially considering Podolski, Rosicky and Chamberlain were all available in reserve. The passing game which is so integral to our performances has appeared "forced" at times, but the quick, one-touch play came naturally yesterday, and had some luck gone our way, or our players finished with move conviction, we could have won that game easily.

Yet the steely determination on show for the last half hour is something that we can't be without if we want that Champions League place. A few years ago, we might not have won that game.

In fact, just two years ago we led Sunderland 1-0 before losing our best player through injury and then going down to 10 men. We were left to rue missed chances as a very late Darren Bent goal cost us two points.

Yesterday was different. We showed fighting spirit, with Szczesny stepping up with some vital saves, and Arteta looking like a perfect leader in the centre of the park. It's important to note that since his return, we've managed 2 consecutive clean sheets and 6 points out of 6.

There are certainly a lot of positives from the game, but none more so than the three points. With a week off until Blackburn we can now get a much needed rest with the Bayern match on the horizon.

Up the Arse!

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