The best and the worst of Arsenal were on display yesterday, which is par for the course these days, but the influence and quality of captain Robin van Persie ensured we took three invaluable points.
The first 20-25 minutes were a taste of what this Arsenal side has the potential to do when their tails are up and the confidence starts to flow. A goal after just 28 seconds, Arsenal’s fastest ever in the Premier League, went some way to making that happen. Rosicky played in Gervinho, he passed to van Persie who let it roll across his body before spanking it home with his right foot.
Starts don’t come much better than that and you could see it invigorated the team. Gervinho looked dangerous down the left, the midfield trio of Song, Arteta and Rosicky buzzed about with great effect, and at the hub of it all was Robin. He might have had a second, and one that would have been goal of the season, had his right footed chip not bounced off the post and along the goalline. On Sky Alan Smith made the daft comparison to Eric Cantona, when it was the kind of goal Dennis Bergkamp scored more than once during his time at the club.
The captain fired another shot not too far wide after good work from Song and Rosicky, Gervinho ought to have done better having worked himself into a shooting position just inside the box, and a corner was cleared off the line. Arsenal were playing really well and it looked a matter of time before the second.
Instead, we went into self-destruct mode. It began when an offside trap failed, Wojciech Szczesny came miles out of his goal, got nowhere near the Sunderland player and only good defending from Alex Song prevented the equaliser. After that we looked rattled and Sunderland could sense it, I think. They equalised through a quite fantastic free kick, given against Arteta, from Seb Larsson. It went over the wall and into the top corner. There wasn’t a thing Szczesny could do about it and it’s not as if we didn’t know about Larsson’s quality from those kinds of positions. Afterwards, Arsene Wenger described him as the best free kick taker in the league.
Sunderland should have gone ahead of a few moments later. Carl Jenkinson was robbed in midfield, Sunderland broke down our right, and when the cross came to Cattermole at the back post he was denied by a quite brilliant Szczesny save. I suspect, had the tables been turned, we’d be talking about how our player missed an absolute sitter, and while there’s an element of that you have to give props to the keeper for getting across his goal and making himself so big. Another chance before half-time, when Colback volleyed over from 8 yards, just illustrated how precarious the 1-1 was at the break.
Still, in the second half we dominated the game and the possession, looking for the the goal which would put us ahead. Carl Jenkinson put that one bad moment behind him and really tried to provide some forward momentum down the right hand side. One thing this boy has is fantastic, and consistent, quality to his crosses. With both feet too. Tomas Rosicky looked more like the Rosicky who isn’t broken up in bits, trying to drive us forward all the time and I thought he was unlucky to be taken off for Benayoun late on.
In terms of chances though, we just didn’t make too many. We had a series of free kicks as Sunderland looked to spoil as soon as we got within 35 yards of their goal. However, between Arteta, Walcott and Andre Santos, none of them threatened the goal. That was until Wes Brown gave away a free kick on the right hand corner of the Sunderland box (from our point of view), and Robin van Persie stepped up to take it. It was reminiscent of the one he scored against Wigan in the Carling Cup during the last season at Highbury, over the wall and into the top corner. Every bit as good as Larsson’s and it turned out to be the winning goal.
“I’ve taken many and missed. It was about time”, he said afterwards, and his double backed up the words in the programme where he said he would show his commitment to the club through his performances. On sheer goals alone he’s done that already in 2011, and having been accused some weeks back of not being a player who leads by example, the captain once again made a mockery of Alan Hansen. What more can he do? When we needed somebody to step up and save the day, there he was. If that’s not leading by example I don’t know what is.
Without trying to put a downer on anything at all, I do still worry that our reliance on Robin might become something of a problem. It’s unrealistic – and unfair – to expect him to do this week after week. He needs somebody to help him, somebody to share the burden, and again it was telling that when we needed a goal in the second half, the manager ignored his only striking option on the bench (Park) and brought on Benayoun instead. If there’s money to spend in January (and if you listen to last week’s Arsecast you’ll know there is) then the purchase of a striker who can take on some of the responsibility seems a no-brainer to me.
However, that’s an aside and I don’t want to take anything away from van Persie or his contribution yesterday. When a team is struggling you need players with character to show what they’re made. How many times have we heard of X player dragging their team over the line? Well, Robin did that yesterday and given his form in the last 9-10 months, he must be up there with the best strikers in the world right now.
Afterwards the manager praised his captain:
Many people question his leadership qualities but I believe he is completely committed for the cause on a daily basis. What’s even more important is that he does the job on the football pitch. He is a special football player.
And on the team and the performance in general:
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.
Overall it was a game and performance which showed both sides of us. When we’re confident we look more like the Arsenal we’re used to seeing. Quick, incisive passing, creating chances and dominating both possession and territory. But such is the brittle nature of that confidence that it only takes one moment to make us look as shaky as we did in the last 15 minutes of the first half. And what we have to do is learn to manage those periods of the game better.
You cannot dominate for 90 minutes in the Premier League so when the other team has a spell when they’re on top we need to be better organised and not look so panicked. It’s almost as if that fear spreads through the team and quite honestly, anything can happen. And anything often does. Yesterday it was a piece of brilliance from Larsson which undid us and but for another amazing save from Szczesny it might have been worse.
However, it wasn’t worse and the second half response, especially on the back of some untimely half-time boos, was good to see. As I said yesterday it was all about getting three points yesterday, we did that, and it’s another baby step in the right direction. And at this moment in time that’s as much as we can realistically hope for.
It’s a good confidence boost ahead of the midweek trip to France and it means that Monday morning isn’t filled with the wailing and guh-nashing of teeth.