Sunderland 2 – 0 Arsenal
1 – 0 Richardson (40)
2 – 0 Oxlade-Chamberlain (77 o.g.)
The demanded response to Wednesday’s defeat in Milan arrived quickly at the start of the match and disappeared as quickly in a flurry of injuries and mistakes as Arsenal’s cup season all but ended on Wearside. Dark clouds hang over the club with language in the media to match. Questions asked over the manager’s future following the shambles at Old Trafford have re-emerged from hibernation alongside stories of Viv Nicholson-esque shopping trips to the Transfer Hypermarket.
Little surprise in that given the result at The Stadium Of Light. Martin O’Neill sent his charges out into battle with a single plan; harrass, harry and overwhelm with numbers. They carried out that plan but needed the cruel fates to help them on their way. Yet for the opening ten minutes it seemed more a case of when Arsenal would score, not if; Sunderland could not touch it. Disruption arrived in a familiar form; Francis Coquelin this time the recipient of a hamstring pull.
His replacement was the luckless Sebastian Squillaci who too would succumb to injury barely eight minutes into the second half. That change seemed to invigorate the hosts as much as destabilise the visitors. From that point on, Sunderland exerted a strangulating grip on the game, leaving Arsenal bereft of ideas and their hunt for silverware barely registering breath.
Arsenal utterly dominated the opening exchanges, penning Sunderland into their own half with crisp passing, slaking their thirst for possession with careful retention of the ball. A goal at that time would have opened the floodgates; it almost came as Arteta’s freekick curled beyond the near post.
When play resumed after Coquelin’s departure, the lack of understanding between the incumbent central defenders was almost immediately apparent as Djourou was deceived by the flight of the ball and Sessignon shot wide. Gusting and blustery winds made it difficult to judge the trajectory at times; Fabianski looked to have got it all wrong from McClean’s cross before the ball dolly-dropped into his hands.
Arsenal responded with their best chance of the game, Gervinho’s rasping drive tipped wide by Mignolet. van Persie would have a penalty claim denied in the dying embers of the half but these were Arsenal’s brightest chances in the game. Sunderland were creating little better until Arsenal once more conceded a soft foul in a crucial position. Ibrahimovic had fallen to the floor under the featherweight touch of Johan Djourou in Milan, Craig Gardner the same in Sunderland. The freekick appeared to be heading for a cross in until Richardson turned sharply and shot into the far corner with the help of a telling deflection.
Half-time brought no fresh impetus to Arsenal other than momentum into the treatment room. Barely had the top of the net stopped rippling than Ramsey and Squillaci had departed the pitch with varying knocks and strains. Song reverted to the centre of defence, Rosicky into midfield and bizarrely, Walcott was brought in as a central striker. For all of his attributes, Walcott has never struck me as having the physique needed in English football to lead the line. It also speaks volumes of Marouane Chamakh’s future when he cannot force the manager into playing him when it is his favoured role that is being utilised.
Wenger’s intention might have been to use Walcott’s pace with ball’s over the top of the defence and to turn them but those passes never happened. Instead Song, Arteta and Rosicky played wide to Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho to receive the ball by return or watch moves melt into softly conceded possession or throw-ins. The pitch was not suiting Arsenal yet to me that offers a more worrying concern; if the squad can only play on pristine surfaces without displaying the guile or pace to play on bad, there are severe problems for the manager to deal with.
As Sunderland retreated to the edge of their area, it was apparent that they wanted to hit Arsenal on the break. Several warning attacks were neutered before real danger emerged until Arteta was outpaced and found himself on the floor in his pursuit, Larsson raced into area from the resultant pass, striking the post before watching the ball spin into the net off Oxlade-Chamberlain as he tried valiantly to prevent that outcome.
Post match, Arsène called the situation rather accurately,
At the moment it is best to let people talk, criticise, analyse and destroy and on our side it is important to show internal strength and resilience and come out with a strong performance in our next game
That is all the players and staff can do; there will be deserved criticism of recent performances. The brief mini-revival has come to a spluttering halt and Tottenham is a must-win game; it was before yesterday but to retain their top four place, Arsenal must win. Chelsea might well be stumbling like a drunk at a wedding but Arsenal have no firmer grip on sobriety.
As I said in yesterday’s post, all of the whining in the world about what should have happened in January, about your or my perception of the players is not going to change a thing. Claiming the manager should be changed is not going to gain any support from those in power. I am not sure what is needed at this moment in time; would a change in formation, for example, make that required difference? Perhaps, maybe not. Perhaps a change in players, those frozen out may be the spark. Whatever the solution is, Arsène has a week to find it before the obnoxious brats from down the road arrive at The Emirates.
On Arsenal On This Day, a cup-tie against a North Eastern side that went well.