It was quite clear on Saturday afternoon at the Stadium of Light that both Sunderland and Arsenal were short of confidence. Despite a morale boosting late comeback in Brussels in midweek, Arsenal were still a team trying to find some form, while Sunderland were desperate to not be on the end of another pasting after losing 8-0 at Southampton last weekend. In a nervy game for both sides, two mistakes that were capitalised on by Alexis Sanchez gave the Gunners victory.
From an Arsenal point-of-view, it was a hard game to judge where the team are at the moment, and if genuine improvement is being made. For the most part, Sunderland were sitting incredibly deep, with two banks of four barely getting beyond the penalty area. Even though the hosts weren’t pressing the Gunners too often, the sheer number of bodies behind the ball and the goal made it a challenge for Arsenal to intricately weave the ball through.
That said, Arsenal hardly set the world alight with their attacking play. With both Arteta and Flamini in the team, the Gunners’ backline were less exposed, but certainly in the first half when Arsenal had the bulk of possession, the midfield missed the drive of Ramsey or Wilshere to break through the lines and offer support to Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. Arteta did at least look after the ball better than Arsenal have done in the centre of the pitch in recent times, and was as metronomic as usual in his distribution.
At the back, Arsenal looked better than they did against Anderlecht, with Per Mertesacker in particular backing up his call for improvement by looking more like the BFG Gunners fans have come to know and love. When at centre-back, Nacho Monreal still had understandable moments of indecision, but battled admirably. More concerns returned towards the end of the game though as Kieran Gibbs went off with a knock, meaning there are now three fit first team defenders, plus Hector Bellerin stepping up from the Under-21s. There was a worry moments after Gibbs limped off when Mertesacker looked like he might have picked up a problem as well. He ran it off, but it’s past the point of another injury meaning a crisis at the back.
While there were still the ongoing issues to iron out, Arsenal were glad to be playing a team with even less confidence than themselves. Sunderland worked pretty hard, and were clearly determined to stay in the formation set up by Gus Poyet when defending, but after the hiding at Southampton, there was tension in their play, particularly at the back. When nervous, the last thing you want as a defender is a forward pressuring you high up the pitch and making you make an instinctive decision. Any hesitancy or uncertainty can be brutally exposed.
In Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal have one of the best in the league at defending from the front and putting pressure on defenders. In a rare foray towards the half-way line for the Sunderland centre-backs, Wes Brown was chased by Sanchez and scuffed a horrible attempted back-pass into the path of the Chilean. Sanchez raced away and produced an incredibly calm, chipped, finish past Vito Mannone. Despite being on the end of a few robust challenges in his first few weeks of his Premier League career, this division is definitely to Sanchez’s liking, and he’s almost single-handedly trying to drag the Gunners into some form.
It was no surprise that he wrapped up the win near the end of the game as his pressure again led to a horrific Sunderland cock-up. I think most Arsenal fans feel sorry for Vito Mannone as he always seemed like a nice guy when he was at the Gunners, and he had a few excellent games for the club. But his error at the end of the game, allowing Sanchez to almost walk the ball into the net, was extremely welcome to ensure no injury time panicking at the other end of the pitch. I can’t work out what Mannone was trying to do with the ball after receiving an unexpected back-pass from Vergini. He only managed to stab the ball straight to Sanchez, who almost looked slightly embarrassed for the keeper after he flicked the ball into the net.
The second goal only came after some botched efforts on the counter-attack that a more confident Arsenal side would have clinically finished. Santi Cazorla blazed the best opening over the bar, but a few times, a delayed pass killed the chance of a clear chance. The end of the game was getting a bit too close for comfort until Mannone intervened and forgot he was no longer an Arsenal player.
Without really playing well, Arsenal have at least picked up two wins in the last week. The defence looked better at Sunderland, and in Alexis Sanchez, the Gunners have a sensational player that, with support from his team mates, can the hub of an excellent team. There’s still much to improve upon though, as Arsenal can’t rely on the excellent work of agent Vito every week.