Sunderland 0 – 2 Arsenal
0 – 1 Sanchez (30)
0 – 2 Sanchez (90+3)
Arsenal emerged victorious from the Stadium of Light. They didn’t play well, they didn’t have to. Given the choice, I suspect that Gus Poyet would turn the clocks back more than an hour; probably eight days or so. Sunderland’s hangover from the eight-goal drubbing at St Mary’s showed little sign of abating in an unsurprisingly uninspired and unadventurous performance. That’s not Arsenal’s problem, they have their own to deal with but in winning, they can only beat the opposition in front of them.
And if Arsenal take anything beyond the points from the match, it should be inspiration from the performance of Alexis Sanchez. Rarely has such a talented forward put in a performance of such hard work. Both goals were the culmination of tireless running that planted the seeds of doubt – fear – in the minds of Wes Brown and Vito Mannone; Sanchez capitalised, finishing exquisitely for the first, dutifully for the second. If the rest of the squad follow the Chilean’s lead, the next dozen games will be a breeze.
They have to be. There are ten which are eminently winnable, two – Dortmund and Liverpool – where I would not be surprised at dropped points but progress to the Champions League knockout phase ought to be sealed by the time we meet the former and if our form is anywhere near where it should be by the time of the trip to Anfield, we can look at that match with more optimism. But such is the way that this season has unfurled, looking beyond next weekend’s visit of Burnley is an ill-advised strategy.
It wasn’t just the amount of ground that Sanchez covered – I am sure someone like Flamini ran further – it was the intelligence of movement and use of the ball that stood him apart from the likes of Cazorla, for example. The sense is of a man who is aware of the frailties of the squad and has decided that example is the way to pull the strands together. As strategies go, it’s hard to fault especially as his own return in front of goal is exceptional at the moment; there was something fitting that he scored the club’s 1,500th Premier League goal.
Closing down on Wes Brown – so often derided as Manchester United’s weakest defensive link – he forced an unnecessary error from the defender and sensing the opportunity waited until Mannone committed himself to the earth before finishing. Had the Italian stayed on his feet, ball would still have finished in the net such is Sanchez’s confidence in front of goal although even he looked momentarily bemused after second. Quite what Mannone was trying to do, well I can guess, it was a touch taken to launch the ball forward. It is hard the following day, not to feel some sympathy for the former Arsenal goalkeeper.
Just as the ray of sunshine began to peek through, the clouds of injury closed again. Theo Walcott’s return to the bench was most welcome but Kieran Gibbs exit with a suspected hip injury is worrying. Wenger will be grateful that there is no midweek match, allowing the England international the opportunity to rest and recuperate otherwise the back four that ended the game – Monreal, Chambers, Mertesacker, Bellerin – is the one that will face Burnley next weekend. Isaac Hayden might knock on the door but I’d prefer that one. Chambers is growing with each game and if he can harness the energies which surely mark him out as a defensive midfielder in the future, there is a player who can provide the cover centrally that Arsène so desperately needs. That he didn’t receive a yellow card is encouraging.
The win shouldn’t divert attention away from the problems the squad still has but it certainly provides a basis for improvement. Whilst Wednesday’s win in Brussels had the hallmarks of a smash and grab raid, this was a more measured performance. A team in better form would have battered a very poor Sunderland side but Arsenal controlled the game for the most part and did enough to win. I think I would have been extremely concerned had they not done so in this fixture. If you cannot boss a side bereft of confidence and belief, your problems are immeasurably worse.
It doesn’t all rest on Alexis’ shoulders. Returning from injury, Aaron Ramsey is improving with each performance. With his patchwork quilt recovery record, the Welshman can hardly be blamed for not firing on all cylinders. In fact, it would be hard to understand a player playing a full pelt in his circumstances. As much as the fitness regime is questioned, we tend to forget that the players have input into their recuperation and return to the side. Managing their own performances is part of that process and we should expect the same tentative return from Theo Walcott. Becoming confident that they have conquered their injury problems, leads to an increased intensity in their games and that aspect is noticeably absent from Arsenal’s midfield at the moment. A week’s rest – or training only – ought to do Ramsey the world of good in that sense and offers the opportunity to re-establish understandings with Jack Wilshere who will surely return to the side next weekend, c0mpleting the triumverate with Arteta.
There is much to work on – delivery from corners is one aspect – but tentative steps are being taken to restoring Arsenal to a level beyond the mediocrity which has been apparent this season. The talent is there and this morning I’m just grateful that as a city London is more appealing than Merseyside.