Yesterday was Robin van Persie’s day. Just how important he is to the post-Cesc Arsenal was on display for all to see. His first goal, just half a minute into the game, saw him receive the ball from Gervinho on the edge of the penalty area, and work the space before getting off a shot that wrong-footed Mignolet in the Sunderland goal. It was decent but said more about poor defending from our opponents than anything.
His second was as sublime a free-kick as one is likely to see, deftly flighted to the top right-hand corner of the goal. Van Persie seems to like scoring free kicks against Sunderland in October; his powerhouse shot off the underside of the bar was against the same opponents in 2007. Seb Larsson’s equaliser yesterday was another superb free-kick, and being sat behind the goal in the North Bank, I have to admit, I felt pretty lucky seeing two perfect efforts, even if one of them was against us.
But probably the most impressive piece of van Perise’s play was a miss: in the middle of the purplest patch of the first half, the first 25 minutes, van Persie took a pass with his right foot, shielding it from the defender, and then took an early chip across to the other side of the goal. The Belgian keeper was completely beaten and looked to have resigned himself to picking the ball out of the net. But the trajectory of the ball bent ever so slightly and the ball hit the inside of the post. Gervinho attempted to sweep up the pieces as the ball went across the face of goal, but it was too much for him. Van Persie may not have scored but his effort was reminiscent of Cantona at his arrogant, puff-chested best (also against Sunderland, as it happens). Absolutely superb.
Van Persie aside, there was some good aspects to our performance yesterday. Carl Jenkinson had his best game for us so far, and showed that he’s learning as quickly as Koscielny did last year. He’s prone to be a bit head-down when running with the ball, but again and again he attacked Kieran Richardson at left-back and often got his cross in. And Tomas Rosicky had by some distance his best performance for a long time, justifying his surprise inclusion in the starting XI. Rosicky worked hard and turned his markers well. Despite what others might say, Rosicky also delivered a number of good passes, including the one that released Gervinho before the Ivorian laid it onto van Persie for the first goal.
Wojciech Szczesny didn’t have the busiest of games but his point-blank save from Cattermole at the end of the first half was world class – after the energetic and awkward Sessegnon undid our defence and knocked the ball across the goal, everyone in the ground must have assumed it would be Sunderland’s second goal, the ball just needed to be nodded in from a yard. But Szczesny didn’t give up and launched himself across the goal, and Cattermole’s header just cannoned off the big Pole. An epic piece of keeping.
Andrey Arshavin has done little to justify his wages since that goal against Barca but his sub’s performance yesterday was the best we’ve seen of him for a long time. His desire and artistry in the dribble was great to see, and he was unlucky to see his toe-poke shot go wide after he’d slalomed through the Sunderland defence.
But there were negatives. Sunderland were a weakened side: they don’t have their first choice keeper available, have seen their star striker bizarrely head off to the Gulf on loan, and one of their first choice centre backs is on police bail amid serious criminal allegations. Sunderland may have spent heavily over the past few years but this is a side we should be beating more comfortably than we did. We tore them apart in the first 20 minutes, and could easily have been three or four up, and we completely dominated the second half, but we ceded control of the game in the first half and, despite all the second half possession, we often looked laboured in attack. Sunderland were well organised and hard-working, deploying the typical defensive 4-5-1 used against us at Ashburton Grove, including the rotational fouling tactic, which the weak and inconsistent Howard Webb was unable to deal with.
On individual performances, the one that worried me the most was Mikel Arteta’s. I like Arteta, he’s intelligent and honest, a real team player. But he hasn’t shown adequate quality in an Arsenal shirt yet, and yesterday he contributed little of value for us. And he even gave away the free-kick from which Larsson scored with a needless handball.
Theo Walcott drew the customary slagging from his own fans, something that never fails to wind me up, but he didn’t have a good game, too often taking up poor positions. That said, he undid the Sunderland defence a couple of times and carried some threat to our opponents. Not that the haters would acknowledge that.
The defensive side of our game remains a delicate thing. Most of the time, everything was ok, but in the 15 first-half minutes when Sunderland were on top, too often our opponents had the luxury of time and space on the ball. We need to be far more focussed and consistent in our defending.
And finally, our crowd: Christ on a bike, where do some of these idiots get off, booing their side at halftime? And that after a half in which we’d done plenty that was good. I despair of some of my fellow Arsenal fans. The volume was increased in the second half, but this impatient, hypercritical nervousness is neither justified nor productive.
We’re edging forward slowly. We’re back in the top half of the table and within striking distance of Spurs. But next weekend, we’re hosts to Stoke, who will bring much more of a threat than Sunderland. Cope with that and we’re definitely on the up.
My rankings for the day:
Szczesny: 8 A world class save and generally very good, bar a couple of wonky kicks. No chance for the goal.
Jenkinson: 7 After looking like damaged goods in his last few outings, CJ showed real promise.
Gibbs: 5 Didn’t contribute enough going forward.
Song: 6 Some wayward passing but pretty sturdy performance.
Arteta: 4 Disappointing. Needs to impose himself soon.
Rosicky: 7 A renaissance for Little Mozart?
Gervinho: 6 A great opening 20 minutes, not a lot after that.
Van Persie: 9 Oh my god, what a day. Get that contract sorted now.
Benayoun: 6 Did ok when he came on, worried the defenders on a couple of occasions.
Written by 26may89