Monday, 17 October 2011

Van Persie brace secures the points

Yesterday’s result has to be seen as a good three points, propelling the Gunners to the dizzy heights of tenth in the league (the highest we have climbed in 2011/12 so far) whilst leaving Sunderland teetering on the edge of the relegation zone, ahead of Bolton only by virtue of goal difference. There were also many positives to take from the performance, with good spells in both halves in which Arsenal looked dominant.

The line-up was notable for the absence of Ramsey, replaced by Tomas Rosicky, and Jenkinson starting at right-back, despite Wenger’s hints earlier in the week that he would play Koscielny there and Djourou at centre-half. Perhaps Arsene was just trying to keep Steve Bruce guessing; in the end he set out his stall with an attacking forward line and probably the strongest back-line currently available.

The team showed intent right from the kick-off, scoring with the first attack of the match. Gervinho has added directness and purpose to Arsenal going forward and he was instrumental in the early goal, finding space on the left and doing well to pick out RvP in the middle. Van Persie’s 101st strike for Arsenal was something of a rarity among his collection of Gunners goals – a low and precise right-footed finish.

The old chant ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ reverberated around the Emirates even as fans were still filing in. The lead gave the Gunners a perfect platform on which to build, providing an immediate boost to the collective confidence of the team. Indeed, the display of good football continued as both crowd and team responded to the bright start, and for the first 25 minutes there were glimpses of what this Arsenal side may be capable of. They looked assured in possession, full of ideas and capable of applying sustained pressure.

Van Persie should have had a second after twelve minutes when he turned superbly on the edge of Sunderland’s box and chipped exquisitely over Mignolet. Agonisingly the ball hit the inside of the post and bounced away. On the MOTD2 sofa later, Neil Warnock called it the best thing he’d seen in the Premier League so far this season, while Gooners made their own comparisons to our most famous Dutchman – the turn and chip was certainly reminiscent of Bergkamp in his pomp.

There were other positive moments and a couple of half-chances before Arsenal nearly let Sunderland back in, with, predictably, a defensive error, but unusually one that stemmed from a moment of madness by Szczesny. He raced out of his goal to collect a ball, but Stéphane Sessègnon got to it first and squared across the box – only a timely block from Song cut out the danger.

Minutes later Sunderland pulled a goal back after Arteta conceded a free kick about 30 yards out. Seb Larsson, fresh from international heroics for Sweden last week, duly stepped up and delivered an unstoppable curling finish into the top corner. He used to do the same thing fairly regularly for Arsenal reserves, and a player with such ability from set pieces is always a good asset. Admittedly, when he left to join Birmingham in 2007 Arsenal had something of an embarrassment of riches in midfield, but in hindsight we probably should have tried to hang on to him…

The Gunners now started to wobble. Inevitably the equaliser had a positive effect on the opposing team, but Arsenal had been on top and there was no need to panic. Unfortunately, the back four didn’t seem to see things that way, with both Koscielny and Jenkinson committing errors – Sessègnon got the better of the latter on numerous occasions, while Sunderland’s ginger menace Jack Colback repeatedly caused Koscielny problems. Arsenal should have conceded again in the 35th minute when only a wonder-save from Szscesny kept out Lee Cattermole’s header from less than three yards. Our young keeper threw himself to his left and clawed the ball away, showing great reflexes and more than atoning for his earlier mistake.

The natural ebb and flow of football, and the pace and intensity of the Premier League in particular, means that it is rare for any team to dictate a game for the full 90 minutes. We know this, but at the moment Arsenal seem unable to absorb any pressure from the opposition – as soon as they are forced on the back foot they begin to crumble. Suddenly the composure disappears and the players seem incapable of finding a pass or making a tackle. Half-time was a welcome chance to regroup and Arsenal emerged from the tunnel with a restored sense of purpose. Hard to imagine Wenger applying the hairdryer, but whatever he did had a positive effect.

Some niggly fouls resulted in yellow cards for Song and Koscielny, and worryingly the first change of the match came when Santos replaced Gibbs – the manager later revealed that Kieran had suffered a stomach strain. Arsenal threatened continually but were unable to score, despite some good individual moments. The highlight of these was a jinking run into Sunderland’s box from Andrey Arshavin, who came on for Gervinho and immediately set about rectifying what by his own admission has been a disappointing start to the season. Whether affected by a drop in confidence, the Russian has underperformed of late but yesterday showed both urgency and trickery.

As the second half went on, and without a second goal to seal the game, frustration levels inside the Emirates began to rise, particularly when Song wasted a good chance to release Theo down the right, who had made an intelligent run. In addition Arsenal were ineffective from corners time and time again – we had nine in the match compared to Sunderland’s two – but none resulted in a clear-cut chance, and a couple didn’t even clear the first man. This is something that must improve – without wanting to detract from an otherwise excellent performance, RvP’s delivery from corners is rarely consistent.

After a series of underwhelming set pieces, it was therefore fitting that van Persie scored a fine second goal from a free kick seven minutes from time. It was a deserved winner, and pleasingly (albeit with frayed nerves) Arsenal were then able to see out the match – despite a scare when Ji-Dong-Won put the ball into the net. Fortunately Howard Webb had spotted that he was at least a yard offside.

Wenger summed up the game fairly succinctly, and for once without reverting to his recent tendency for cliché. He was also rightly effusive in his praise for RvP, who put in a match-winning performance.
‘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.

The spirit in the team is exceptional and in the second half we just came out and played in their half. We are growing as a team and getting stronger and stronger.

Robin van Persie is a special player and he's shown that again today. He's blessed at the moment and let's touch wood with his injuries. He's shown what a great player he is when he can be consistently playing.

Gibbs has an inflammation of his stomach muscles. Ramsey has a small chance to be in the squad, he had fatigue of his hamstring. But it is a very, very minor one. I wanted to give him a breather. It would have been a gamble to play.’
The decision to rest Ramsey was probably wise – he played international football for Wales in the break and had featured in all seven of Arsenal’s league matches up to the Sunderland game, as well as three Champions League fixtures. Too many games combined with international demands leads to fatigue and injury, particularly in young players, and that is arguably why we are currently without Jack Wilshere.

Besides, Ramsey’s replacement, Tomas Rosicky, played well (albeit in a slightly different role), and either of the two substitutes yesterday – Benayoun and Arshavin – are capable of filling the midfield with creativity, provided a holding player such as Song, Frimpong, Coquelin or a deeper-lying Arteta plays in support. Aaron has also been criticized in some quarters recently for being indecisive and slowing down the tempo, and Arsenal did seem to play at a faster pace against Sunderland yesterday. The impetus provided by the early goal may account for that, however, and the statistics – four assists and a goal to date – show how important Ramsey is to the team.

The same can be said of Robin van Persie, who was instrumental in the result yesterday and was the stand-out player on the pitch. As Wenger says, his fitness will be key to how the rest of the Gunners’ season pans out.

Scszesny also played an important part, and his form – excellent to date – will also dictate how far up the table Arsenal can climb.

Although no team with our points tally at this stage of the season has ever recovered to finish fourth in the Premier League, we are now only six points away, with eminently winnable games in the coming weeks – although the trip to Stamford Bridge next weekend could delay the start of a good run.

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