Sunderland Review: Arsene Gets Bent Out Of Shape
Sunderland 1 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Fabregas (13)
1 – 1 Bent (90)
Alex Song sent off (55)
Tomas Rosicky missed pen (74)
Arsene Wenger evoked the spirit of the midweek demolition by naming an unchanged side for the trip to the Stadium of Light. He got the early goal to boot but the rest of the performance was a polar opposite as Sunderland hassled, harried and pressurised Arsenal onto the back foot. The final kick of the ball gave the hosts a share of the points, scant reward for the defensive performance his charges put in.
Sunderland had a lot of pressure but despite dominating possession, they created few clear openings and when they did, Almunia produced a performance of the level which added more evidence that he is gradually shaking the demons of last season from his system. That he is receiving more protection from his centre backs helps; Squillaci’s experience shone through but it was Koscielny who was the outstanding performer, shackling Bent in a defensive prison for most of the afternoon.
The French defender is showing why Wenger was keen to sign him, willing to pay more than he perhaps intended. His tackling was excellent, as was his anticipation. He has made mistakes in other games but what marks him out differently from say, Senderos, is his ability to learn and not let those errors impact his game. His confidence, it seems, has granite as its foundation,
If Wenger was unhappy with the result, the outcome of the demanded FA charge may leave him sitting in the stands for a few games whilst Mrs W’s spending power could be diminshed for a week or so by the fine which would accompany any ban as the manager alledgedly pushed the fourth official in the aftermath of Darren Bent’s late equaliser. Perhaps his legendary failing eyesight may work in his favour, arguing that he did not see Martin Atkinson on the touchline.
And yet the three points ought to have been on the flight home. Tomas Rosicky took the captain’s responsibility for taking the penalty with fifteen minutes to go. The art of leadership also involves knowing when delegation is a better option than doing something yourself. Chamakh and Nasri have both taken penalties for Arsenal more recently than the Czech international and will do so before he does again. Power is as well and good but as Chris Waddle will attest, it is nothing without direction.
Sunderland started the match and carried the plan through. They worked hard to close Arsenal down and tried to prevent the passing game from exerting a stranglehold on the match. The plan lasted less than fifteen minutes. Anton Ferdinand thought he had time to pick his pass; Cesc ensured he did not, closing down the centre back and benefitting from an outrageous block, the ball finding Mingelot sufficiently off his line for the forty yard rebound to fly into the net.
In the celebrations, it is clear Fabregas was feeling some effects on his hamstring, which would lead to him being withdrawn later in the half. Steve Bruce’s reaction summed it all up, hand over his eyes, crying out, “Oh, for f**** sake!“. One-nil to the Arsenal and any nerves should have been settled. Far from being deflated, Sunderland set about retrieving the deficit with a gusto and deserve credit for their workrate, even if it left little tangible mark in terms of chances.
Almunia dealt with crosses confidently once more, opponents are rapidly finding that this supposed weakness is not bringing any reward. Whether it leads to them playing more football against Arsenal remains to be seen. Sunderland may have had plenty of corners but few led to real chances. When they did, Bent blazed high and wide whilst Onhoua missed equally badly with a free header.
Before the interval, Arsenal had the chance to increase their lead. An increasingly rare attack found Song at the far post and he should have done better with his header. The second half saw Arsenal start brightly, Nasri’s cross found Arshavin in the middle and under pressure, his effort flew over the bar. The Russian then missed following good work by Rosicky and Song; he should have done better than screw his shot wide of the goal.
As it was, Rosicky’s penalty miss proved costly. Nasri was needlessly fouled and this in contrast to Sunderland’s spurious claims in the first half, was cast-iron in its award. Rosicky’s miss was as sinful as Elmohamady’s challenge. Just as it seemed the misses would not matter, the sky fell in as Bent rammed home in the dying minutes. A lot of hard work undone by a lapse in concentration.
Wenger complained post-match that the referee should have blown for full-time before Gael Clichy’s mis-hit clearance found Bent on the edge of the six-yard box. However, four minutes added time is a guide and officials have been more lenient in its application this season, not blowing the whistle exactly on time. Had the positions been reversed as they were two seasons ago, there would have been no arguments.
Clichy is being roundly criticised for the goal and that is not without foundation but to temper that, Koscielny was in close proximity to the left back as he sought to find safety. Perhaps it distracted or made him conscious of the element of misfortune which may have occurred had full-blooded contact been made. There was a fair chance of the ball cannoning into the net had it struck the centre back. Even so, there were gaps where a chipped ball could have found relative safety.
The mistake though is highlighting who is going to be donning this season’s scapegoat jersey. Before the match, Keiran Gibbs abilities were being played up as if his potential were actually experience. There are demands for him to be first choice despite lacking first team outings, coming from the same quarters who wanted experienced players signed in the summer. They won’t see the irony of the conflicting stances.
Clichy has weaknesses, all players do. They become a problem when they are not dealt with and there is no sign that this is the case with the Frenchman. Gibbs has potential but he is not ready to be first choice left back yet. More to the point, how will the critics react when their chosen one makes a costly error? Will it be blithely dismissed or will they get on Gibbs back, demanding Wenger replace him with Clichy, questioning why an experienced player has made way for a youngster?
Alex Song has been there and won over most with good performances. He will want to forget yesterday. The initial booking was contentious to say the least and there is a nagging belief that had Song not shown dissent over the decision to give a free kick against him, he would probably have not been cautioned. That done, Song would have instantly known that he was walking a tightrope and amended his game accordingly.
Referees tend to give players who are genuinely going for the ball the benefit of the doubt in those instances; they don’t for a bodycheck, a foul which is cynical in its execution. No arguments over the second yellow but disappointment that Song was thoughtless in those circumstances, especially as there was little or no danger in not being in possession of the ball. It was nothing less than immaturity from the midfielder and he will be learning the lesson.
I am not sure if he misses purely Premier League matches only or whether it applies to all domestic fixtures. If it is the latter, the visit to White Hart Lane is a bonus and Song will be available for the visit of West Brom. If not, he can play in the Carling Cup and add a bit of experience into the midfield.
It was a match title-winning teams should win but a draw is not a disaster either. Defeat in fixtures such as this last season were as costly as the poor record against the rest of the top four. Already Arsenal has four more points than the corresponding fixtures last season. There is a long way to go this season and the signs are encouraging, the foundations for a title challenge being built steadily.