Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Walcott (23)
The season signs off on a winning note with Theo Walcott’s excellent finish midway through the first half being the difference between the two sides that the history books will note. In reality, the margin was wider for despite fielding a side that would not have looked out of place in the Carling Cup.
The hosts started brightly with Fabianski scrambling away Carlos Edward’s long-range effort inside the opening twenty seconds. For all of their possession, Sunderland were largely restricted to efforts from outside of the area all afternoon. Indeed, it was injury-time as the match drew toward its conclusion that the young Pole was required to make another meaningful save, stopping O’Donovan’s effort on the line.
Arsenal’s winner came from the two extremes of the club on show. In youthful surroundings, Gilberto Silva rolled back the years with an inch-perfect pass for Walcott to race onto and bury in a clinical fashion that he shows regularly at the junior international level. The Brazilian was a quietly dominant force in the midfield throughout the afternoon, going about his work in a quartet that provided decent protection to the Arsenal penalty area.
With Kolo Toure succumbing to a hamstring injury – Arsene should look at this for there must be some sort of record held by Arsenal this season for the cumulative total of this type of strain or tear – Johan Djourou slotted into the right back slot, Alex Song being partnered by Philippe Senderos in the centre in the absence of William Gallas. All of them were reasonably comfortable in the carrying out their duties although Arsene needs to look at the right side of the defence for fitting square pegs into round holes over a sustained timescale does not work. Sagna and Hoyte picking up knocks and missing long spells is a somewhat unusual situation to be in so should not be treated as the norm and a reason to claim that more strengthening is needed specifically there. If Hoyte were to leave then that would need addressing.
Post match, Arsene was upbeat,
I don’t think we have failed. When you get eighty-three points, you have the opposite feeling. I have won the championship with less. We have been remarkable; I have never had a team which consistently produced quality like this one. But we lost the one hundred metres by a fraction of a second and someone stuck their chest out in front of us at the last. That doesn’t mean we have not run a great race
It is a matter of opinion whether this season has been a failure. In brutal terms, no trophies is not successful. However, that the team for so long led the way in the Premier League race is a cause for optimism. Reducing the deficit to the Champions to four points is a significant achievement. Ordinarily, the title is won by how you perform against teams lower down the division; this time it has been the matches between the top four that have provided the difference. Of their six games, United won four and drew two. Arsenal conversely won one and drew three, losing the others.
The landscape of English football has changed. No longer is the title race between two teams, three are there and this makes it more difficult to win. The wait for one rival to slip is often not long but for two to make mistakes takes more time. Arsenal found this season that the longer the season goes, the more costly the slip.
Prior to the match, Arsene indicated that he was hopeful his summer business would be completed before the end of the month, toying with journalists that he was going to Euro2008 as a ‘football fan’. If that is correct, people will be happier with the summer months although for some, no matter how many players Arsene signs, they will not be enough or sufficiently high in stature.
More immediately, his attentions will be turned to Alexander Hleb’s future. In this morning’s Times, Martin Samuel feeds the ‘Prophets of Doom’, arguing that Wenger’s modus operandi is nearing its end in the same way that led to Wimbledon’s demise. Using Flamini and Hleb as examples, his argument suggests that players such as Adebayor and Fabregas will follow suit unless Arsene breaks the clubs wage structure.
Samuel would have received his answer had he read the papers over the weekend. The basic salaries may be lower but the bonus and incentive system operated by the club compensates for that. In winning seasons, it is higher yet they will be amply rewarded this time around. Mathieu Flamini used a smokescreen on Saturday to claim he would have stayed had the club won the title or Champions League. It is disingenuous to say the least. He is joining a club facing the very real prospect of UEFA Cup football next season, one that is so far behind their local rivals that winning the title in the next two seasons is not a realistic prospect. To claim anything that represents moving as footballing reasons does not stack up with the evidence in front of him.
As for Hleb, Samuel hits the nail squarely on the head. Without doubt, his head has been turned by the mind-boggling sums on offer elsewhere. However, considering the hard facts of his contribution to the Arsenal team (a total of goals in the Premier League that has yet to hit double figures; a shots on target tally that does not reach double figures in a season in the same competition), this observation ought to be considered very closely,
Hleb may be making a huge mistake and his uniquely ambitious style of play may never be indulged so lovingly by a manager again
Frequently, the Byelorussian is the pass before the ubiquitous ‘assist’ stat and that masks his contribution to the side. However, he needs to remember who has nurtured him through this period. You can guarantee that no other top four manager would have continued to play him with a paucity of end results. That said, I do not think he will give it a second thought. Money talks and it will be no surprise to see Alex walk.