Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland: a tale of two free-kicks
Team: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs (Santos), Song, Arteta, Rosicky (Benayoun), Walcott, van Persie, Gervinho (Arshavin)
The Short Report
A crucial win against Sunderland sees us climb up to10th in the table. We took the lead through Robin van Persie in the first minute only to be pegged back by a stunning free-kick from former Gunner Seb Larsson. Van Persie conjured up a spectacular set-piece of his own ten minutes from time, lashing past Simon Mignolet to seal the victory.
The AL Report
Most Gooners will be happy to see the back of 2011, but it continues to get better and better for Robin van Persie. His magnificent brace made it 27 for the year and gave us three valuable points against a dogged Sunderland side.
The international break meant that we had a fortnight to dwell on the North London Derby defeat and there was very much a sense of needing to start from scratch for the umpteenth time heading into this contest.
We welcomed back Laurent Koscielny in defence and Carl Jenkinson began what may be a prolonged run in the team in the absence of Bacary Sagna. The boss shuffled his pack in midfield, with Alex Song returning to his more familiar role in midfield and Tomas Rosicky coming in for Aaron Ramsey. Surprisingly, there was no place for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the squad, despite the impact he has made in recent appearances for us and the England U-21s.
The visitors came into the game as one of five teams to have registered even fewer points than us – just six from seven. They were unable to call on the services of Nicklas Bendtner either who had made a promising start to his loan spell but ineligible to play against his parent club. Stephane Sessegnon was nominally the lone frontman, although in reality Steve Bruce’s formation had a whiff of 4-6-0 about it.
So often we have paid the price for starting slowly, but we were straight out of the blocks this time and opened the scoring with just 27 seconds on the clock. Thousands of latecomers were still making their way to their seats as Rosicky set Gervinho free on the left wing with a clipped pass. The Ivorian scampered down the pitch without inviting any challenges before squaring it to van Persie, who slotted it home clinically for his 101st Arsenal goal.
The Sunderland defence, which included two Manchester United cast-offs in the shape of John O’Shea and Wes Brown were caught half-asleep, but it was the best possible beginning for us. Confidence has been a fragile commodity in recent times, but you could immediately see the difference it made to our game as we snapped into a fluid passing game seen all too rarely over the last twelve months.
On eleven minutes, van Persie produced a moment of breathtaking skill that Dennis Bergkamp would have been proud of. Picking up Mikel Arteta’s pass on the edge of the box, a quick pirouette left Kieran Richardson for dead as he floated the most delicate of chips past Simon Mignolet. The keeper was stranded, but sadly it went off the post and nobody was able to stab in the rebound. He went close again minutes later, with a shot that just whistled wide.
Whilst van Persie was completely unplayable, Sunderland were also struggling to cope with Gervinho who was finding plenty of space on the left hand side. He blazed a shot over the bar after leaving O’Shea chasing shadows.
The purple patch wasn’t to last though and the final twenty minutes of the half were tough viewing. It started when Per Mertesacker attempted to spring the offside trap, but was too late as Richardson found Sessegnon with plenty of space on the left. Wojciech Szczesny came rushing out of his goal too early and left himself no chance of reaching the ball. Sessegnon’s cross was cut out by Song to avert disaster, but this rare lapse in judgement from the keeper triggered panic in the ranks and the assurance we had displayed up to then appeared to vanish immediately.
Moments later Sunderland were level. Arteta fouled Lee Cattermole on the edge of the box and the free-kick was lashed home by Seb Larsson, who has developed into a very useful player since leaving us four years ago. It was beautifully placed and powerfully hit, but watching it again it’s hard to escape the feeling that Szczesny might have positioned himself better.
As soon as we concede a goal we always look liable to concede another immediately afterwards and we were lucky to go into the break on level terms. Sessegnon benefitted from another lapse at the back as Jenkinson was robbed by Larsson who went on another foray down the left. His clever cross was met by Cattermole who was denied by a simply stunning save by Szczesny, who spread his arms wide to prevent a certain goal before gathering the ball and launching a counter-attack. We had another scare before the half-time whistle as Jack Colback volleyed Larsson’s headed knock-down just over.
The interval gave us time to regroup and we started the second half in determined fashion. An early chance fell to Theo Walcott, who picked up Jenkinson’s pass and shot across goal, forcing Mignolet into making a good save. Kieran Gibbs was replaced by Andre Santos shortly afterwards having picked up a knock – yet another setback for the youngster as he tries to cement his place in the team,
Rosicky, enjoying his best game for some time, was at the leading the charge for us. He made a lung-busting run from deep in our half towards the Sunderland box, only to be cynically hacked down by David Vaughan, who was lucky to escape with a yellow card. He then played a sublime long pass to Walcott whose cross hit a Sunderland arm. It looked a clear penalty from the North Bank, but Howard Webb waved play-on.
We wasted a couple of opportunities from free-kicks, but it was clear the momentum was with us. Andrey Arshavin replaced Gervinho and enjoyed a very lively cameo. Some dazzling footwork took him past three defenders, but his effort went wide. It was a flash of genius that reminded us what he is capable of when he is in the mood.
As the clocked ticked down, the anxiety and noise levels in the crowd increased. Our set-pieces were desperately ineffective as a couple of corners came to nothing. On 80 minutes, when van Persie was fouled by Brown, there was little reason to expect anything other than the tame efforts we had seen earlier from Walcott, Santos and Arteta. Van Persie's blistering free-kicks used to be his trademark, but it has been some years since one has gone in and he was strangely reluctant to take any up to that point. Thankfully, he took responsibility this time and his shot curled deliciously into the top right-hand corner. It was a cathartic moment as he whipped off his shirt in delight, picking up a booking for his exuberant celebration.
The goal set up a nervy finale during which substitute Dong Won-ji put the ball in the net for the Black Cats only to have it ruled offside. We had another shout for a handball penalty and the South Korean had a shot that was blocked by Koscielny. Webb added an improbable five minutes injury time, which we saw out in reasonably composed fashion to pick up our third win of the season.
Next up: A mid-week visit to Marseille for our third Champions League group game, before our friends from Stoke come to visit next Sunday.
Man of the Match
Our squad may be considered the weakest we have had in years, but in Robin van Persie we have one of the very best strikers in world football right now. Two sumptuous strikes won us the points as well as a lovely chip that should have given him a hat-trick.
Completely understandably, Carl Jenkinson has occasionally found the transition from League One to the top level tough at times. Not even in his wildest dreams could he have expected to have played so much at this stage and he looks set to continue now that Sagna is out until the New Year. One first-half lapse aside, he put in a very solid performance and always looked threatening going forward. His ability to whip dangerous crosses into the box could be a potent weapon for us in the coming months.
Moan of the Match
Rarely does any match refereed by Howard Webb pass without controversy and this one was no different. From my view, we should have been given two penalties for handball in the second half, but he waved the appeals away immediately. You wonder if he may have looked at them a little more closely had they occurred at Old Trafford.
The Final Word
There were many positives to take from the game, not least the fact that the win moves us to the top half of the table. Van Persie caught the eye and Jenkinson, Gervinho, Rosicky and Arshavin all made excellent contributions. Sunderland’s equaliser could have been the catalyst for the kind of catastrophic meltdown we’ve become used to this season, but despite a wobble, we picked ourselves up and got our reward in the end.
I won’t make the mistake of saying that a corner has been turned, but I was very encouraged by the way we battled and showed the kind of fighting spirit that we will need if we are to start challenging for a Champions League place.
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2011-12 | Match Reports