We always knew Sunderland would be a tough, physical matchup considering their track record of being a solid defensive squad, and the pointless International friendlies that were scheduled midweek. Fortunately, Arsenal were able to escape the Stadium of Light with a much needed three points that catapulted us over Everton to fifth place before their clash with Manchester United later today. This game was a true test of our character since we had to weather out the storm for 28 minutes with only 10 men.
Before the game even started, we were thrown a curveball with Koscielny not feeling well and Sagna having to deputize for him at the CB position, with Jenkinson filling in at RB.
The first half began with strong physical play from both sides, with both Cattermole and Jenkinson making some careless challenges resulting in yellow cards. The physical play continued throughout the half with Sunderland players targeting Jack and Theo at every possible opportunity. It was a pleasure to see Ramsey, Jack and Arteta respond with some physical play of their own and take down some Sunderland players in the process. Arsenal was full of attacking intent and we came at them with pace and astute passing that broke down their defense on numerous occasions. As Sagna pointed out in an interview with Arsenal.com earlier this week, the free flowing nature of our attack often leaves us susceptible to counter attacks, and Sunderland had a couple quality chances themselves to get on the board. Theo was particularly dangerous with the ball at his feet and Sunderland seemingly stood still and watched him, as he easily maneuvered around their defense and created a few quality scoring chances. However, Mignolet was looking like he’d be impossible to beat after making some fantastic saves and us being too wasteful in front of goal; we were all left wondering if this would eventually come back to haunt us yet again.
Fortunately, after several missed chances, Santi was finally able to give us the lead in the 35th minute on a fantastic cross crease strike.
The second half started exactly how the first half finished, with both teams trading chances and plenty of physical battles. Jack left the field in the 50th minute after being fouled by N’Diaye and it was more of a precautionary measure by Wenger, since he had played a full match midweek vs. Brazil. Twelve minutes later, Jenkinson fouled Sessegnon after he was beat and collected his second yellow card of the game and was sent off the pitch.
From there, Sunderland took the game to us and continued to challenge our defense and threatened to score. Steven Fletcher had the best chance to equalize on a clear one on one with Szczesny but was denied by aggressive play from our stopper. Sessegnon gave us trouble on both flanks all game and had a few quality chances to score but some poor decision making kept them scoreless.
Theo had the best opportunity to give us a two-goal cushion when Santi sent him in on a clear break, but the post denied his chip shot over Mignolet. Arsenal was able to hold onto the clean sheet and the crucial three points, thanks to some outstanding saves by Szczesny and headers/clearances by Giroud, Mertesacker and Sagna late in the game.
Szczesny (9.0) – My MoTM and the main reason Arsenal were able to keep a clean sheet. Szczes was certainly the difference maker today as he made 6 quality saves, with three late in the game (Fletcher one on one, in addition to Fletcher and Bramble headers). Good aggressive play on challenging shooters and jumping for high balls in our 18-yard box by our young keeper.
Monreal (7.5) – Nacho is already looking like he’s played with Arsenal for a while and adds stability to the LB position. His phenomenal first touch on controlling balls in the air was there for everyone to witness and he made all the right passes and runs in the offensive zone. Sessegnon did beat him in the first half, however he was trouble for us all night and the defensive lapse never even led to a shot on goal.
Mertesacker (7.0) – The BFG positioned himself well to make some great clearance headers at the end of the game and kept our back line well organized throughout the contest. His one major mistake came in the second half when he cleared a ball right at Fletcher that gave him a clear chance to equalize. Fortunately, Szczesny bailed him out.
Sagna (8.5) – I thought Sagna did a magnificent job filling in for Koscielny at center half. He was very disciplined defensively and never risked his positioning by venturing forward to join the attack. He added a nice physical presence in the heart of our defense and made some game saving clearances in the second half. For me, he was the one of out best players on the pitch today, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll get another chance at the CB position.
Jenkinson (6.0) – In the first half, Jenkinson was very steady, joined the attack well and mitigated any risks by clearing the ball out when under pressure. However, in the second half he was beat by Sessegnon on two occasions and one eventually led to his ejection from the game. Both of his fouls were rightfully penalized and they were careless tackles that he could have avoided with better positioning. The sending off put our team under a lot of pressure to come out with the three points and his rating is reflective of this. He might deserve more of a break since it was his first PL start in a while, but I would have to like to have seen Jenks be more disciplined in his tackling.
Arteta (7.5) – Our squad is more organized when he’s in the lineup and he sets up the play from deep with astute passing and vocally dictating to players where the open spaces are. On counter attacks, he would often aggressively challenge the opposition and concede free kicks to allow the rest of our team to catch up. He effectively killed some time near the end of the game by holding on to the ball and not rushing the play up field for a counter attack. However, he made one visible mistake when he questionably held on to the ball and lost possession against a pressing N’Diaye right in front of our back four.
Ramsey (8.5) – Has there been a player who has made greater improvements over the last few weeks than Ramsey? Much like Arteta, he was aggressive in challenging the opposition on counter attacks, defended the RB position against Sessegnon once Jenkinson was sent off the pitch and ran up and down the field the entire game. In the first half, he made some good penetrating passes in the offensive zone and had a great shot on goal that was met by a fantastic diving save. His rating would have been higher had it not been for his wasted breakaway shot right at Mignolet just before the first half.
Wilshere (7.0) – He never really had the opportunity to settle into the game and establish himself since Sunderland’s focus was to foul him and take him out. Still, in the 50 minutes he did play, he effectively drove our team forward and helped dissect Sunderland’s defense. However, Jack uncharacteristically had some misplaced passes in the final third that led to quick counters for Sunderland in the first half.
Cazorla (8.5) – Santi was all over the pitch and his rest last week vs. Stoke seemed to rejuvenate him. Our most dangerous player offensively, he was the main beneficiary of Sunderland’s defense zoning in on Jack. He was given space to move around the pitch and played some dangerous balls in the final third and opened up Sunderland’s stingy defense. His goal in the first half proved to be the match winner and his slick pass to Theo in the second half would have been a nice complement to the performance he put in today. With that said, his shot over the bar near the end of the game was very questionable and it gave Sunderland one more chance to attack down field for the equalizer.
Giroud (7.5) – Defensively, Giroud did all we could ask for from a striker; he ran up and down the pitch to help out at both ends, pressured Sunderland’s defense to rush the ball up field and made some crucial clearances with his head when we were down to 10 men. His movements were great as he got himself into prime scoring areas but his finishing left much to be desired. He had a beautiful pass that sent Ramsey in alone and was involved in other dangerous link-up plays that led to quality scoring opportunities. However, he was also at fault for holding on to the ball for too long and getting stripped, in addition to a few other misplaced passes that stopped our attacking momentum in the first half. His decision to shoot (well over the goal) on a quick break near the end of the game, when he had open men to his left and right, thankfully did not cost us. Hopefully Giroud’s finishing will improve in time for the critical clash vs. Bayern in the CL.
Walcott (7.5) – Theo’s darting runs with the ball really helped set the tone for Arsenal in the first half. He created so many scoring opportunities for himself that it was disappointing to see him miss on all four of his clear scoring chances. Much like Giroud, his lackluster finishing could have cost us on other days, but fortunately not today. Even though he did not score, his overall performance was solid and he contributed an assist on Santi’s goal. Also worth mentioning was that he honoured his defensive responsibilities today, especially when we were down to 10 men and helped Ramsey defend Sessegnon.-
Diaby (6.5) – He came onto the pitch at a disadvantage since we were down to 10 men, 12 minutes into his substitute appearance. It’s difficult to make an immediate impact coming cold off the bench and it was evident in some early give-aways by Diaby. As the game continued, he started being more careful with the ball and was involved at both ends of the pitch. His physical presence in the midfield was exactly what we needed to see out the one goal lead.
Miquel (Incomplete) – He made a late cameo appearance to help protect our one goal lead. It would have been nice to have seen him play more minutes to help discover if we have a quality fourth choice CB. I believe that had Jenkinson not been sent off and if we had been winning by more than one goal, he would have been brought on as a substitute earlier in the second half for Jenkinson, with Sagna being pushed out to RB again.
With both Chelsea and Tottenham winning their home games today, it was vitally important to return from Sunderland with three hard fought points in the bag. Arsenal played a game of two halves, but both halves contained really good stuff.
In the first half, we were able to dominate play for large periods and create a number of fine opportunities, and some of our football was simply sublime. However, we were wasteful and only scored one goal which kept Sunderland in the game.
In the second half, Arsenal’s resolve was tested by the combination of Jack’s injury and Jenkinson’s sending off. We have often been questioned by the media and pundits if Arsenal are a club that has what it takes to grind out wins like today’s; there was a willingness to fight for every ball and defend our lead at any cost. All the players played well in protecting our lead, but a special mention to both Szczesny and Sagna who fought with pride for the shirt and led the team by example.
Arsene should now be able to rotate a few players for our game against Blackburn in the FA Cup. This means that some of our key players may be rested for ten days before our CL round of 16 tie with Bayern.
A good result today and perfect preparation for two important games coming up.
Written by: Highbury Harmony.