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Easy to blame officials, but Arsenal undone by their own lethargy

Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0

Sometimes Arsenal are their own worst enemy. They will, with some justification, blame critical refereeing decisions which denied them a penalty and a legitimate goal for dropping two points at home. However, if they had played with the same urgency they displayed in the final 30 minutes throughout the game, Sunderland‘s obdurate rearguard would have been breached anyway. Steve Bruce will be delighted at ending a run of four straight defeats. But so too will Alex Ferguson at seeing the damage caused by Manchester United‘s midweek defeat at Chelsea mitigated.

With injuries depriving him of Cesc Fàbregas, Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie and Alex SongArsène Wenger named a depleted side which saw Jack Wilshere move to the head of midfield.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Clichy

Denilson – Diaby

Wilshere

Nasri – Bendtner – Arshavin

Arsenal had picked up a point at the Stadium of Light in September in a bizarre match in which Fàbregas scored by charging down Anton Ferdinand‘s attempted clearance, Tomáš Rosický missed a penalty and Darren Bent (now at Aston Villa) equalised with practically the last kick of the game after Gaël Clichy belted the ball against Laurent Koscielny.

Is anybody awake?

Sunderland worked hard right from the start, making life difficult for a desperately lethargic Arsenal side in a half containing precious little action.

Bendtner had most of Arsenal's few first-half chances (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Chances came at a premium. A sliding Nicklas Bendtner, starting up front after his midweek hat-trick, narrowly failed to connect with a teasing Clichy cross. Samir Nasri weaved his way all the way to the by-line and attempted to fire home from an impossible angle, but Phil Bardsley deflected the shot into the side netting. From the resulting corner, Bendtner’s overhead kick fell straight into the hands of the grateful Simon Mignolet – a foot either side and it would have been a goal. And, again, Bendtner drew a fine save from the Sunderland keeper with a fiercely struck half-volley.

The visitors were largely content to park the bus, leaving Asamoah Gyan alone up front to forage for scraps. But Stephane Sessegnon, a January signing from Paris-St Germain, was quick to support him whenever he could, and had Sunderland’s one real chance of the half. Some clever trickery just outside the area allowed him to accelerate clear of Clichy for a moment, allowing him to get off a shot which Wojciech Szczęsny needed to be alert to parry away.

Other than that, there was little to write home about as Arsenal struggled to get any kind of fluency going.

Twice denied

The start of the second half saw little by way of improvement. There was a worrying moment for the home fans when Johan Djourou went down after receiving an inadvertent elbow to the face. But Arsenal did not come to life until Marouane Chamakh replaced the disappointing Denilson on the hour mark.

Chamakh's arrival had a positive effect, and he was unlucky not to score (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The Moroccan striker had an immediate impact. He skipped away from Titus Bramble down the right and squared for Andrey Arshavin, who should have done better with his first-time shot than to hit it straight at Mignolet. Chamakh then met a Wilshere cross with a thumping header from five yards which rattled the crossbar, shortly after Nasri had seen his free kick beaten away by the keeper.

But the real drama all came in the final ten minutes. First Arshavin was shoved in the back by the stumbling Bramble just as he shaped to shoot. Replays suggested it was a clear penalty, but none was given. Three minutes later, substitute Danny Welbeck brought a fine save from Szczęsny after Sessegnon had again beaten Clichy. And then, three minutes from the end of normal time, Bendtner’s defence-splitting pass allowed Arshavin to round Mignolet and tuck the ball into the empty net, only for his effort to be disallowed for offside when he was a foot onside.

Arsenal, suitably affronted, still had time to create two more clear chances, but Bendtner nodded straight at Mignolet and then Koscielny glanced a header wide.

Quantitatively, after United’s defeat at Stamford Bridge, it was a point gained. In reality, it was two points lost. And, although two key decisions had gone against them, Arsenal really had nobody to blame but themselves.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Wenger was furious after the match:

We have given everything in the end but we lacked a little but of sharpness in the final third. We had two decisions go against us today that punished us severely, especially the offside [against Arshavin].

Today was the kind of game you want to win 1-0. We do not want to have things going against you – it happened.

Ahead of Tuesday’s crucial Champions League second leg in Barcelona, he had little positive injury news to offer:

No [on Walcott]. No van Persie. Fàbregas has a chance. [Wilshere] has an ankle problem but we will see how he responds to treatment tomorrow. He’ll be out of training maybe one or two days.

Having listened to the game on the radio and seen only the Match of the Day highlights, I won’t go into any in-depth tactical analysis, but here are a few observations.

Whether coincidental or not, Arsenal’s performance turned after Denilson’s substitution. It’s too easy to blame him for everything, but the Brazilian continues to slow the pace of attacks with his refusal to play any kind of adventurous forward pass. Against a determined and well-organised Sunderland side and on a day when Arsenal sorely lacked the creativity of Fàbregas, the pace of Walcott and the guile of van Persie, that simply isn’t good enough. Diaby is not a passer, and is still short of full fitness anyway. And although he seemed to play quite well and with his usual dynamism, it was asking a lot of Wilshere to carry the entire creative burden in midfield when playing out of his accustomed position. It speaks volumes for the 19-year old’s talent that we expect him to do that at all.

Arshavin and Nasri both had their moments in the second half, and although Bendtner failed to score from several chances, none were in any way bad misses. The service to the front men was poor, and Arsenal were too often left passing the ball harmlessly around in the final third, lacking the wherewithal to stretch the Sunderland defence out of shape.

Defensively, Arsenal were fairly solid, although Clichy will be glad not to have to line up against Sessegnon again this season. Szczęsny had precious little to do, but made the important saves when called upon. Koscielny did everything he could to add an additional body to the attack in both open and set-piece play.

Two points dropped, and although Arsenal are still three points behind United at the top of the table – United play at Liverpool later today (Sunday) – their fate remains in their own hands, with the league leaders still facing a trip to the Emirates. If anything, though, Arsenal will be glad that six of their last ten games are away from home. Too often at the Emirates this season against so-called lesser teams, they have dropped points unexpectedly. They can ill afford to allow any more to slip away.

And so it is on to Camp Nou on Tuesday night, with the FA Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford next weekend. It’s a tough week ahead, and potentially a defining one.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

5 Responses to Easy to blame officials, but Arsenal undone by their own lethargy

  1. Mark says:

    I want you to go back to every game Denilson has started. Find where we have played well as a team when he is controlling the tempo in midfield. But Arsene still persists with him. Why? The worst midfield player for Arsenal EVER. Worse than David Hillier.

    • Tim says:

      Not the worst ever – Ian Selley, anyone? – but Denilson is a limited player who too often slows the pace of attacks down. He was the wrong player for Saturday, where we needed a more progressive, attacking approach.

  2. James says:

    The ball’s back in your court now :-/

  3. Pingback: Van Persie a class above as Arsenal edge past struggling Sunderland « The armchair sports fan

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