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Van Persie a class above as Arsenal edge past struggling Sunderland

Arsenal 2 Sunderland 1

Van Persie 1, 82; Larsson 31

Robin van Persie put in a captain’s performance as his clinical finishing proved the difference in a game which Arsenal dominated for long periods, but regressed all too easily into familiar vulnerabilities at other times. However, three welcome points lifted fans’ spirits and elevated the team into the top half of the table for the first time this season.

Arsène Wenger made three changes to the side which lost 2-1 at White Hart Lane a fortnight ago. Carl Jenkinson came in at right back to replace Bacary Sagna, whose broken fibula will keep him out until after the New Year. Laurent Koscielny returned to the back four, allowing Alex Song to resume in his customary position, while Tomáš Rosický replaced Aaron Ramsey in midfield.

Szczęsny

Jenkinson – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs

Song – Arteta

Rosický

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Last season this was Arsenal’s first league fixture after the Carling Cup final defeat. It finished 0-0 after Andrey Arshavin was first denied a clear penalty and then had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside. And so began a terrible run of form which has carried over into the start of this season, in which Arsenal had secured just 19 points from 18 league games.

A flying start

Van Persie scored Arsenal's fastest ever Premier League goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With many fans still taking their seats, Arsenal took the lead after just 29 seconds with their quickest ever Premier League goal, and the fastest by any team in four years. Tomáš Rosický‘s attempted through ball for Gervinho was cut out as John O’Shea stepped forward to intercept. However, the loose ball broke straight back to the Czech midfielder, who immediately lofted a pass into the space behind O’Shea for Gervinho to carry to the edge of the Sunderland area. The Ivorian squared it for Robin van Persie, who swept the ball right-footed past Simon Mignolet from about 15 yards.

For 25 minutes, Arsenal were rampant as Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Rosický bossed midfield and Gervinho and van Persie posed a constant threat to the visitors’ back line. The Arsenal captain was desperately unlucky not to add a second on 12 minutes, receiving the ball from Arteta and spinning away from a befuddled Kieran Richardson before lobbing Mignolet with a delicate chip which struck the inside of the far post. Two minutes later he fired just wide from 25 yards after some quick-fire interplay orchestrated by Rosický.

Gervinho should have done better with an effort from the edge of the box which he ballooned over after cutting in incisively from the left. But there was nothing wrong with his far post header from an Arteta corner shortly after, which had to be scrambled off the line with Mignolet beaten.

Sunderland, playing without a recognised striker, struggled to gain a foothold. But they were almost gifted an equaliser on 27 minutes when Stephane Sessegnon sprung Arsenal’s offside trap and evaded Wojciech Szczęsny as he charged out of his box. Fortunately the danger was cleared, but four minutes later the Black Cats were level. Lee Cattermole won a free kick in a central position 28 yards out and former Gunner Sebastian Larsson curled a shot over the wall – it just cleared the jumping Per Mertesacker – and into the top corner. It was a magnificent strike which drew obvious comparisons to David Beckham.

Arsenal’s near total control over the game immediately evaporated, and although Sunderland still struggled to put together serious possession they twice spurned golden chances to go into half-time with an unlikely lead. First Larsson robbed a ponderous Carl Jenkinson, allowing Sessegnon to cross from the left for Cattermole. A goal seemed inevitable, but Szczęsny managed to scramble across his goal and spread himself to make a point-blank save. And then Sessegnon again fired in a perfect cross, this time from the other flank, which the unmarked Larsson nodded down for Jack Colback, only for the midfielder to scoop a shot over the bar from six yards.

Van Persie succeeds where his teammates failed

Half-time seemed to help steady Arsenal. Without ever quite recovering the fluency of the first 25 minutes, they dominated possession and increasingly forced Sunderland back. David Vaughan, Larsson and Wes Brown were all cautioned as Arsenal players – most notably Rosický and the galloping Jenkinson – showed a pleasing willingness to run at defenders with the ball. The home side won a number of free kicks in dangerous positions around the Sunderland area. However, André Santos (on for the injured Kieran Gibbs), Arteta and Theo Walcott all skied poor efforts into the stands.

Nonetheless Mignolet was much the busier of the two goalkeepers. He had to be alert to prevent a Richardson own goal after good work by Walcott down the right, then turned away a van Persie effort with his leg.

Arshavin provided an electrifying cameo and was unlucky not to score (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The arrival of Andrey Arshavin for the final quarter of the game turned up the pressure another notch. So often a forlorn and peripheral figure in the past 15 months, here the Russian was lively, purposeful and threatening, running hard and always looking for a pass. One mazy dribble saw him weave his way into the box between four Sunderland players before poking a shot narrowly wide.

However it was still 1-1 as the game entered its final ten minutes as Sunderland’s rearguard action continued to frustrate Arsenal. But then van Persie was felled by Brown near the right-hand corner of the area. The captain, presumably frustrated by his teammates’ inability to keep their shots down, took responsibility himself, curling a left-footed effort over the wall and finding the perfect spot six inches inside the near post and six inches under the bar. It was the Dutchman’s first free kick goal since New Year’s Day.

Arsenal squandered opportunities to add a third goal which would have made the game safe, but nonetheless repelled Sunderland without too much anxiety. Substitute Ji Dong-Won did put the ball in the back of the net late on, but the striker was at least a yard offside and the flag was duly raised. Victory puts Arsenal back on the right track after the international break ahead of Wednesday’s pivotal Champions League game in Marseille. Sunderland slipped to 17th, increasing the pressure on Steve Bruce.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was full of praise for his captain’s performance in his post-match press conference:

Well, he scored two goals. I think you have to analyse the game a little bit to see how important he is. The first goal was a good display of the team and the second chance he made the difference just because of his skill, which was exceptional.

He was pleased with his team’s recovery in the second half, and praised Sunderland for their committed resistance:

We started well for the first 25 minutes and then when they equalised you could see that we were wobbling a bit with confidence. At half-time the team regrouped and then the second half was all us.

Sunderland were 100 per cent committed, played with six midfielders and four defenders and fought for every inch on the pitch. They deserve a lot of credit. They made life difficult for us.

And he pointed to the importance of maintaining the current run of good home form:

We have now won five home games on the trot. If we can put another two or three results together it will help confidence because you can feel that the attitude and spirit of the team is great. Even at half-time we had a good response. The motivation is there and the quality too so we should eventually get there.

Arsenal’s ongoing recovery can still only be regarded with caution, but there were continued signs of improvement here. Buoyed by the early goal, there was a greater incision and directness about much of Arsenal’s play, with the movement of the front three causing Sunderland all kinds of trouble. While Arsenal’s heavy reliance on the brittle van Persie for both inspiration and goals remains a concern, there is now no question that he has developed into a world-class player over the past couple of years. Gervinho put in arguably his best performance for an hour before tiring, choosing the right option more often and over-elaborating a bit less. Walcott continues to flit in and out of games, though, and despite a couple of bright moments he struggled here. The growing tendency of the Emirates crowd to take out their frustrations on him during games is less than constructive though, given that the England winger’s confidence has always been a fragile thing.

Rosický also played well, catching the eye with several direct runs and generally looking lively. Nowadays he is never likely to turn a game single-handedly when things are going badly, but when others around him are playing well he is certainly more than capable of making the team function even better. Song had one of those days when his passing radar was awry. Arteta, for all his tidy distribution, had another relatively quiet game and seems to be struggling to find his niche in the team, but that is surely only a matter of time.

Defensively, it is hard to objectively assess a performance against a team playing most of the game with six midfielders and no strikers, but generally the back four coped well, other than the occasional first half wobble from both full backs. Szczęsny survived his one rush of blood, and again proved his worth by continuing to dominate opponents in one-on-one and point-blank situations. The contrast in Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny‘s approaches to the game – one calming, the other aggressive – generally worked well. And Jenkinson had a storming second half, offering a real threat on the flank and delivering some good crosses.

This Arsenal side is still a long way from great, and still has a worrying tendency to go into freefall after conceding a goal, but things are definitely improving. Marseille will offer a much stiffer test on Wednesday than this rebuilding Sunderland side, however.

Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. A coolly-taken opener and a sublime free kick as the skipper’s clinical finishing proved decisive. As important to this Arsenal side as previous captains Cesc Fàbregas and Thierry Henry were.

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

4 Responses to Van Persie a class above as Arsenal edge past struggling Sunderland

  1. Sheree says:

    I watched the match and read the Sunday newspapers at the same time. I thought Arsenal were going to gift a point to Sunderland until Van Persie’s truly sublime free kick. He’s a fantastic player. Wednesday’s game should be interesting as Marseille’s season has gotten off to a similarly rocky start. They’re currently languishing in 14th place in the French League while rumours abound that they’re up for sale.

    • Tim says:

      For a long time it did look like we were going to let Sunderland off the hook.

      And to think there were some Arsenal fans who, as recently as January, were saying we would be better off without the injury-prone van Persie. Jack Wilshere will become one, but RvP is the one truly world-class player we have in our team now. It has taken an injury-free run for him to show what many of us already knew – that he is a player of immense ability who is the spiritual heir to Dennis Bergkamp. In fact, he would be an even better player in the support striker role that Begkamp used to occupy rather than as the target man up front. Mind you, he’s doing the latter job pretty well right now …

      Marseille will be fascinating tonight. It’s too easy to use terms like ‘season-defining’, but the upcoming double-header could certainly be a watershed moment for both sides.

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