Yesterday’s match brought a welcome three points, but highlighted how confidence is the biggest factor affecting our performances.
We got off to a flier when Rosicky chipped O’Shea and sent Gervinho running at the defence. He found Robin van Persie and a decent strike with his right hit the net after just 29 seconds.
The early goal buoyed the team and for the next 30 minutes we were excellent. We settled into a nice rhythm, ripping Sunderland apart at will. van Persie went close with an audacious chip that was reminiscent of Bergkamp in his prime (again with his right foot) before firing another chance just wide. Gervinho blazed just over from the edge of the box and the second goal looked a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
However, a silly handball from Arteta changed everything, allowing Seb Larsson the opportunity to bring Sunderland level completely against the run of play with a brilliant free kick. Wenger’s side metamorphosed from good Dr Jekyll to bad Mr Hyde in an instant.
All of a sudden we’d forgotten how to defend again. Koscielny played a yard behind Mertesacker at all times, keeping everyone onside and Sunderland created three glorious chances before the break. Firstly Jenkinson betrayed his tender years by naively being caught in possession and Sessegnon was sent through, evading the rash advancement of Szczesny before his cut back was intercepted by Song. Then Sessegnon again wriggled clear and sent a perfect cross for Cattermole to head in from three yards, but the midfielder was denied by a Save of the Season contender from Szczesny. As it turned out, this was a game-winning block from the majestic Pole.
Just before halftime the visitors were allowed to work the ball down the right under little pressure from a red shirt before crossing into the box where Arsenal stood like statues as Colback volleyed narrowly over. The halftime whistle blew allowing us to come off the ropes and stumble our way groggily to our corner for some much needed attention.
The second half was one way traffic as Sunderland sat back, allowing us to dominate possession as they dug in deep and defended their 18 yard line. Their cynical tactic was to hack anyone who might get past them, the most brutal being Wes Brown’s awful, diving lunge to scythe down Walcott. This meant we won a succession of free-kicks within shooting range but Arteta, Santos and then Walcott wasted them all with woeful attempts at goal.
It was as if Sunderland knew they could give us free kicks all day long, safe in the knowledge we couldn’t put one away. With our penetration from open play being minimal as well it looked like a good plan. van Persie had one half chance with a shot at the near post which was easily parried and Arshavin shot just wide after a mazy dribble, but that apart we didn’t look like scoring.
In fact from minute 30 to minute 82 Sunderland’s three first half chances were more clear cut than anything we could conjure up in the same period. Boy do we miss Fabregas at times like these.
And so a 1-1 draw looked the most likely result until our Robin reliant showed his teammates how to take a free kick with an awesome curler in the 83rd minute to win the game. A wonderful goal from a wonderful player at the peak of his form. His performance reminded me of Beckham’s famous game against Greece in 2001 when he single-handedly earned England a 2-2 draw to qualify for the World Cup. van Persie was every bit as influential yesterday, leading by example rather than verbally and he is proving right Wenger’s claim that with an injury-free run he can be world class. Long may those glass bones of his remain intact.
van Persie shows his commitment to the cause
There were a few good performances other than van Persie’s — Rosicky looked good, playing better than Ramsey has all season. At one stage he sprinted past two Sunderland defenders in a determined surge from the halfway line to the edge of the box, rolling back the years with an assured performance. I didn’t think he had that drive in him – it was good to see.
Szczesny continues to impress too, putting the mistake at Spurs behind him to produce that amazing first half save. Lesser keepers like Almunia and Fabianski would have dwelt on the error at White Hart Lane and allowed it to affect them, but Wojciech is made of sterner stuff and is one of just a few in our squad who actually do have the mental strength Wenger keeps waffling on about.
Arshavin was bright and lively when he came on, changing the game as we started to slowly make inroads into Sunderland’s massed defence. That was the best I’ve seen him play for a while and maybe qualifying for the Euros with Russia has lifted him. He said when they failed to qualify for the World Cup two years ago it affected his game, so hopefully the inverse effect will happen this time around.
So all in all the three points were the most vital thing, lifting us into the the top half and closing the gap on fourth place. There were some good signs, but we mustn’t get carried away and worries remain about our continued poor defending and fragile mental state. All teams suffer a slight dip in confidence after conceding, but Arsenal’s dip goes deeper than most. It’s quite alarming how we regress to the nervous, impotent Arsenal after a setback and we need to deal with that better because the confident, vibrant Arsenal is capable of scoring goals against anybody.
So let’s hope van Persie’s rescue act has lifted our spirits and toughened up our mental resolve enough to shut the door on that evil Mr Hyde for good.
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