Arsenal secured an important win away to Sunderland this afternoon, despite being down to 10 men for much of the second half. The Gunners were forced into a late change to the line-up when Laurent Koscielny pulled out of the squad due to illness, so Bacary Sagna switched from right-back to centre-back and Carl Jenkinson took his place at RB, meaning the visitors were a man light on the bench.
Theo Walcott had two good chances early on but was denied by Simon Mignolet in the Sunderland goal. The Belgian international frustrated the Gunners forwards all afternoon and you could tell from the opening stages of this match that beating him would not be an easy task. He helped to frustrate Arsenal on the opening day of the season in a goalless draw that the Gunners really should have won and he was in similar form throughout today’s match.
Lee Cattermole was deemed fit enough to start a game for the first time since November and within two minutes, he picked up a booking that quite frankly could have been a red. Good to see that despite a lengthy absence, he hasn’t lost his bad habit of mistiming challenges and putting Sunderland in danger of losing a man. You’d be right in detecting a lot of sarcasm in that sentence.
Sunderland did create the odd chance though. Alfred N’Diaye saw his header go over early on before Stephane Sessegnon beat Arsenal new boy Nacho Monreal down the right hand side, but Jenkinson was on hand to clear away any danger.
Arsenal had the bulk of the first-half chances and looked very comfortable on the ball, moving it about nicely in typical Arsenal fashion. Olivier Giroud was through on goal but dragged his shot wide of the mark as the visitors looked most likely to break the deadlock.
With half an hour gone, Aaron Ramsey came closest to giving Arsenal the lead after Jack Wilshere set him up nicely. Mignolet made a superb stop to prevent the Welshman from scoring, but it wouldn’t be long before Arsenal did have the lead.
In the 36th minute, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott combined to set up Santi Cazorla who steered the ball through a sea of legs to give Arsenal a deserved lead.
Arsenal continued their search for goals and very nearly had a 2-0 lead to take into half time when Giroud put Ramsey into the clear, but Ramsey and Arsenal were left frustrated by Mignolet’s heroics once again. If they were up against another keeper, Arsenal may well have had a more comfortable lead to take into the break. As it was, they had to settle for just the one goal and hoped to build on it in the second half.
The visitors suffered a big setback just 5 minutes into the second half though. Jack Wilshere, a player who had been so influential in almost every attacking move by Arsenal, had to go off injured. From what I have heard after the game it was more of a precautionary move as they didn’t want to risk losing a player of Wilshere’s ability for such a long period of time again.
Steven Fletcher hit the side netting as Sunderland struggled for chances to get back into the game. It was their best chance of the second half at that point and perhaps even the game.
The hosts sensed they had a chance when Carl Jenkinson brought down Sessegnon and was sent off for a second bookable offence. Jenkinson, who celebrated his 21st birthday yesterday couldn’t really have any complaints about the decision to send him off. Jenkinson is a little rusty. He started the season brightly but has rarely featured since Bacary Sagna returned from a long-term injury. It’s quite ironic that he will be suspended for the Blackburn FA Cup game because that was probably a game he was going to start in. However, it won’t be happening now.
Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill brought on new signing Danny Graham to try to salvage something from this game. Graham had a good goalscoring record against Arsenal in his Swansea days, including a goal as recently as last month in the FA Cup tie against them. With a man advantage, all of a sudden, Sunderland fancied their chances.
Arsenal had one defender on the bench. That was young Spaniard Ignasi Miquel. Arsene Wenger decided to play Aaron Ramsey at right-back following Jenkinson’s dismissal. So Arsenal’s defence was now Monreal at left-back, Mertesacker and Sagna in the middle and Ramsey at right-back. You had a right-back playing out of position and a midfielder playing in an unfamiliar role in defence. Oddly enough, it worked. I have been one of Sagna’s biggest critics this season, but his display today was superb in the centre of defence. He played like a captain out there. Ramsey as well, considering he is not a right-back, I felt he did a great job there.
Despite being a man down and having players playing out of position, Arsenal came very close to sealing the three points a few times in the second half. The closest they came was when Cazorla played Walcott in and he clipped the ball past Mignolet, only to be denied by the post.
Per Mertesacker tried to clear the ball away from danger five minutes later and his clearance was charged down by Fletcher. Mertesacker claimed the ball hit Fletcher’s hand, but the Scotsman played on and saw his shot saved superbly by Wojciech Szczesny.
Szczesny hadn’t been troubled for a lot of this game, but Arsenal needed him in the latter stages of the match. The Pole denied Fletcher once again, this time a header from point-blank range.
Adam Johnson was next to test him with a speculative shot that was creeping in and Titus Bramble could have been an unlikely hero for Sunderland, but fired wide of the mark from close range.
Sunderland pushed and pushed for an equaliser but Arsenal defended corners brilliantly, particularly Olivier Giroud who headed away a lot of crosses and corners in the dying minutes. As the hosts chased an equaliser, gaps opened up in their defence. Giroud had all the time in the world and options left and right of him, but blazed the ball over when he could have killed the game off in stoppage time. Even then Arsenal had another chance. Cazorla was the man to fire over the ball over the bar this time when he really should have netted his second of the game.
In Sunderland’s final attack they brought Mignolet forward in their desperate attempts to score an equaliser, but after Szczesny caught one final ball into the box, the game was over, much to the relief of the Arsenal players and fans.
It was a game Arsenal deserved to win and really they should have been out of sight long before Wilshere went off and Jenkinson was sent off. It was closer than it should have been, but with Spurs winning against Newcastle in the lunchtime kickoff, Arsenal needed to win today. They did what they needed to do and they climb to 5th in the table. If Everton fail to beat Man United away from home tomorrow, the Gunners will stay there.
I couldn’t help but thinking Arsenal would rue their wasted chances today. I’ve seen it a lot in recent years, we’ve dominated games and a sending off changes the game. But we dug deep and can be proud of our defensive efforts today as well as our attacking display. Perhaps that is a sign of lessons learnt from previous mistakes, but all I can say is it was a good display today and we were well worthy of the three points.
The focus now switches to other competitions, with Blackburn at home in the 5th round of the FA Cup next weekend, before Arsenal host Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League clash in 10 days time. The next league game is Aston Villa at home, which I will be attending. I hope my Arsenal boys don’t let me down. They usually put on a good show when I go and see them, so fingers crossed they continue that trend.