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Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal: Gunners up for the fight

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A 1-0 win over Sunderland yesterday provided three very important points, and it’s a game that will be remembered for Arsenal’s superb rearguard display, hanging on for three points when down to 10 men and under serious pressure from the home side.

Before we get into that though, it’s worth pointing out that this is a game which should never have been as tight as that. In the first half we created plenty of chances, dominated the game to all intents and purposes, yet only had one goal to show for it. A very nice goal it was too. A typically effective Wilshere run, a Walcott lay-off and a beautiful drilled finish from Cazorla. But I can’t have been the only one who felt it was like an itch we couldn’t scratch when other chances went begging.

Mignolet was brilliant in the Sunderland goal, making two outstanding saves from Ramsey, two very good ones from Walcott, and somewhat let off the hook when we fired shots just wide of his posts when we really should have been hitting the target. The game could have been out of sight at half-time. And even in the second half, when things went a bit wrong, we failed to make the most of opportunities which would have made the game safe.

Walcott hit the post when clean through, Diaby should have scored, Giroud and Cazorla contrived to miss a number of very presentable chances and take wrong options when doing the simple thing would have sealed the win, and had we not hung on there’d have been some choice words after the game I’m sure. A bit more ruthlessness in our finishing is required, and although Sunderland had some chances the game should have been dead and buried at that point.

However, the props will go to the men at the back, and rightly so. When you consider the back four that played the last half hour consisted of Ramsey at right back, Sagna at centre-half alongside Mertesacker, and new boy Nacho on the left, it’s a testament to their commitment and desire to win the game that we took the three points. Ably assisted by Wojciech Szczesny’s best performance of the season, it was backs to the wall stuff.

We weren’t helped in the warm-up when Laurent Koscielny’s calf problem flared up, meaning Carl Jenkinson was drafted in at right back and Sagna moved central. The youngster looked rusty and paid the price for two rather silly tackles. If his first was a reaction to the way Sunderland players were steaming into his teammates, I can understand that, in fact I quite like it, but he can’t have any complaints about his second. He up-ended Sessegnon deep in our half, and despite the fact the referee allowed worse to go unpunished from home players, you can’t give a referee that easy an option. The home crowd baying after an obvious foul, it was always going to be a second yellow, and it shows Jenkinson still has a lot to learn at this level.

At this point I was expecting the manager to put on Ignasi Miquel and shift Sagna out to right back, but Aaron Ramsey slotted in there and did exceptionally well. He had one of his moments in midfield earlier in the second half, but I like this guy. I like his attitude and the fact he never hides, and when asked to do a job just as unfamiliar as playing as a wide forward, he just got his head down and got on with it. He made some important tackles in that position, but just as importantly his energy provided us with an outlet when we did get on the ball.

It also meant that Sagna stayed in the middle and that was the right choice to make. By his own admission he hasn’t been up to his usual standards this season, but hopefully this display is the platform for him returning to that level. He was just outstanding. Wholehearted, committed, aware, and brave, everything you want to see from a defender when your team is up against it. He won header after header, made clearance after clearance, and it was probably the best individual defensive performance of the season thus far.

I thought he was well supported by Mertesacker and Monreal, and behind him Szczesny made three world class saves to keep us in it. The first from Fletcher with his feet was so important, especially as the referee and linesman chose to ignore the fact that Fletcher blocked the ball like a rugby player to put him clean through on goal. The second, the pick of the saves for me, saw him tip a Fletcher header over the bar, and late on he dived to his right to push away a goal-bound Adam Johnson effort. How many times have we bemoaned a keeper error costing us points? This time Szczesny was crucial in us taking all three.

I remember a game here a couple of seasons back, almost exactly the same situation. Song had been sent off, Rosicky missed a penalty to seal the game, and late on Darren Bent nicked an equaliser. Yesterday though, there was no repeat. The way the team as a whole worked for those three points was great to see. I’ve picked out some individuals above but nobody was found wanting in terms of effort and work-rate. Giroud’s finishing might have been off, but he got back and did a job defensively, winning some really big headers in our box when Sunderland’s set-pieces were causing problems.

The finishing, and the injury to Jack Wilshere (which prompted Arsene Wenger to rightly level some criticism at Anthony Taylor – who let Seb Larsson get away with two nasty fouls and no card), are the downsides, but overall it’s a game we can take a lot of heart from and, more importantly, three points. Afterwards, Arsene said:

You saw today that the team is up for a fight. Without that, we wouldn’t have got the three points today. We could not afford to drop points, I said that after the Chelsea game. We are in a situation where we cannot drop points anymore. We needed to be resilient, committed and deal with everything.

If we show that level of fight in every game between now and the end of the season then we’ve got a real chance to do what we need to do. Sometimes a team needs that kind of a game to instill some belief, that they can hang on to a slender lead, that they’ve got the character to deal with difficult situations, and hopefully that’s what they’ll draw from yesterday.

It might have been tighter than we’d like, and I don’t think it did anyone’s blood pressure any good, but it was a bit of a throwback to days of yore, and very enjoyable … once that final whistle went. Now, we’ve got a week to prepare for the FA Cup against Blackburn, then there’s Europe to think about, for now though, we’ll just enjoy those three points.

Till tomorrow.

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Fan of Arsenal, Robert Pires and most everything to do with rum and whiskey. Writer, podcaster, ace flintknapper, sluggish centre-half. Smiter of those that ought to be smote.