Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Cazorla (35)
Sent off: Carl Jenkinson (62)
I’m guessing that Carl Jenkinson was better prepared for his late introduction to the starting line-up than Ray Parlour was twenty years ago at Anfield. He probably wishes he had partaken of a Parlourian pre-match pint given how his afternoon turned out. When Arsène recently dealt a blow to conspiracy theorists by decrying claims of refereeing corruption, he did not argue against incompetence and Anthony Taylor spent the whole of the ninety minutes proving ineptitude is rife. In terms of the cards he received, there is no argument against Jenkinson’s dismissal but how Lee Catermole remained on the pitch beyond the half-time is a mystery that would have inspired Toyah to give up on Sheep Farming In Barnet.
O’Neill’s men set about Arsenal quite literally and invoked the sort of punishments that their endeavours deserved. Except Taylor believed the visitors were to blame for enticing those Sunderland Bravehearts into foul play. Short of reducing Arsenal to the minimum seven players, it is hard to fathom what else he could have done to bolster Sunderland’s quest for maximum points. There was no need; Laurent Koscielny failed to complete the warm-up and Bacary Sagna adapted to the situation, arriving at kick-off as centre back rather than on the right hand side. That injury proved to be the least of his worries when early in the second half, Jack Wilshere crumpled in a heap under a (relatively) innocuous challenge and was immediately substituted. The ten days before the visit of Bayern Munich will hopefully be utilised to its fullest extent so that the mercurial midfielder is fit.
In the end, neither of those incidents negatively impacted on the outcome. Wilshere’s surging run found Theo Walcott in space on the edge of the area, his measured lay-off was met with a superb finish from Santi Cazorla, the ball spinning and fizzing into the net with ten minutes of the first half remaining. It was all that Arsenal deserved, dominating possession and looking threatening at every opportunity. That was until the inequality in numbers left the inevitable Sunderland onslaught and when that was made to count, Szczensy and Sagna were there to defend the lead, to ensure three points returned to north London.
Arsenal started brightly, Walcott was denied twice by Mignolet in the early stages, a battle that raged through the afternoon. Even when the goalkeeper was beaten, the woodwork came to his rescue as the England striker ended the day without a goal. At the other end, Sunderland threatened without creating clear openings. Jenkinson had received his first yellow before Giroud skewed his shot wide and Ramsey had drawn a flying save from Mignolet. The screw was turning and the Sunderland defence creaking, Cazorla piercing their resistance; a goal which surely signalled the beginning of an Arsenal onslaught.
Walcott might have doubled the advantage with a drive that went wide whilst Mignolet spread himself to block a Ramsey shot, one that he knew little about stopping as the ball hit his thigh. Sunderland began more forcefully in the second half but Arsenal should have increased their lead with Giroud and Cazorla going close before Jenkinson committed his second scything challenge to end his contribution to the afternoon. There are frequent complaints of bias against Arsenal from officials but we cannot complain about the decision to send Jenkinson off. They were rash challenges, ones that did not necessarily need to be made. Experience will teach the lad when to make the challenge, when not but more importantly, that when he has received a yellow card there will only be one outcome when he commits a similar foul.
As if a pendulum gently coursing its way to the other end of its range, the balance of power inevitably favoured the home side with their numerical superiority. Wojciech Szczensy had largely been a spectator but now his concentration would be fully tested and the Pole did not disappoint. Arsenal still probed on the break, Cazorla went close but Walcott thought he had eased the pressure as the ball slid past Mignolet toward the goal, the gutwrenching agony of watching it strike the post engulfing the England striker. Sunderland breathed a sigh of relief and intensified their efforts. Mertesacker’s clearance clattered into Fletcher but the ensuing shot was turned away by Szczesny. The same outcome from Fletcher’s header minutes later sapped the belief from the hosts, every save, clearance or timely tackle bolstering the Arsenal defence.
And proof of the points came with the referee checking his watch, Titus Bramble managed to miss the target from close range when scoring seemed easier. Arsenal were holding firm, sporadically attacking on the break. Neither side could make the telling breakthrough and at the final whistle, the pleasure derived from the victory was clear to see in the Arsenal players reactions.
It was a hard-fought last twenty minutes but prior to that, Arsenal were clearly the better side. O’Neill cannot fathom how Sunderland didn’t score after Jenkinson went off, Wenger similarly so for the first hour. I don’t think any of the Arsenal players could have done more in the final stages; Sagna as a centre back, Arteta in the defensive midfield role as well as Szczesny. If Monreal had any preconceptions about the physicality of the English game, Stoke and Sunderland have done nothing to dispel those myths.
Crucially there is a determination evident in the last two matches that was noticeable by its absence in abject away performances earlier in the season. Belief may be returning to the squad, confidence in their own abilities. As it is, six points out of six this month is perfect, just what the manager would be demanding. A brief break from League as the two tournaments which can be won intercede and a different set of challenges await.