Despite the fact this was Thierry Henry’s final Premier League appearance for the club, despite the fact he capped it with an injury time winner, and despite the fact he goes back to New York after our Champions League game against Milan in midweek, it’s hard to think that the Henry Arsenal story is completely written.
There are those who doubted the loan deal, and they had every right to do so, but three goals (two of them match winners), and just his sheer presence has proved that Arsene Wenger knew what he was doing. The shame, of course, is that it has to come to an end, because when you look beyond the emotion of it, what it shows is that having a player of quality who can come off the bench can be the difference between three points and one, between a win and an unnecessary replay.
The clock has just gone over the 90 minute mark when Andrei Arshavin picked the ball up on the left hand side, he had two Sunderland players in front of him, but worked room for the cross which fell just over the head of John O’Shea and onto the predatory boot of Henry who wasn’t going to miss from there. Game over, Arsenal snatched it in injury time having come back from 1-0 down in unfortunate circumstances on an unfortunate pitch, plenty to be happy with.
The first half isn’t worth talking about at all. Sunderland’s game plan from the start was obvious, when we had it get everyone behind the ball, and in their own half. Deny Arsenal space, let’s face it deny any team space, and it’s very, very difficult to break them down. A couple of wayward Walcott efforts were all we had to show from an attacking point of view, while we were untroubled at the back.
The second had more to talk about and to be fair it was the home side that kind of sparked things into life. Wojciech Szczesny was called upon twice to make excellent saves after a period of Sunderland pressure but for the most part Arsenal looked the most determined to win, while Sunderland’s tactic was first not to lose then try and hit us on the break.
The goal was a bit odd, Per Mertesacker had nobody near him as he turned back towards goal, but clearly something went twang in his ankle and he went up in the air then lay in a crumpled, but quite large, heap on the ground. Rightly enough Sunderland played on, James McClean took the ball into the box and from a difficult angle smashed a great shot across Szczesny to make it 1-0.
I’ve got no issue at all with Sunderland playing on, I’m quite sure we’d have done the same, but it’s hard not the think the pitch was a contributory factor to Mertesacker’s injury. It’s also hard not to think that a Premier League club, with the expertise and resources that they have, has a playing surface like that by accident. What better way to stop a team that likes to pass the ball and keep it on the deck than asking them to play on something that looks like it’s been tilled by oxen with old fashioned ploughs?
Anyway, that’s a side issue but the downside to a terrible pitch isn’t just that it can affect the quality of the football, it’s that they’re dangerous. Hopefully Mertesacker isn’t too badly injured but the manager reckons it’s ankle ligament damage (my first thought was snapped Achilles so that’s good) and has already ruled him out of the Champions League game.
The obvious choice of sub was Gibbs for Mertesacker, moving Vermaelen back into the centre, but it would have deprived us of an attacking option. Ramsey’s introduction, moving Song back, was borne out of our need for goals and when the Welshman cracked home the equaliser off both posts just a couple of minutes after coming on you have to give the manager credit for a substitution he got 100% right.
The same can be said for Arshavin. Personally, I’d have done it a little bit earlier and Walcott was the right player to come off, but there was still time enough for him to make his impact. He’s been much maligned in recent times but the fact is if he’s going to be with us until the end of the season – which looks very much to be the case – then it’s better if we have an Arshavin that is at least reasonably happy and productive. We’re going to need the full depth of our squad between now and May and I was glad to see him contribute yesterday.
Afterwards, Arsene said:
We had a lot of the ball but we couldn’t create a lot because our passing was good but it was very difficult to get into their defence.
On top of that we were 1-0 down so it was a question of a spirited performance and that is what happened in the end. I felt we were intelligent, patient and resilient.
He had some nice words for Thierry, as you would expect, who admitted he felt ‘like a kid’ when he scored the winning goal. Knowing it was his final Premier League game to score the winner really must have been something special, and anyone who saw his Match of the Day interview (available on the video page), can’t failed to have been warmed by it. “I’ll be around”, he said. Oh man.
The relationship between Thierry Henry and Arsenal Football Club may have been strained at times but when all is said and done it has been …correction, it is … something quite special, and something we may not see again in our lifetimes. A truly world class player who scored goals for fun will always be a favourite but it’s gone beyond that. It has been a real privilege to see him wear red and white so many times and it does feel like a shame we have to let him go. Maybe this cameo was something we needed for a number of reasons, but mostly we needed it for footballing ones.
To put his contribution into perspective: in a total of 96 minutes (plus injury time) since January 9th, he has scored 3 goals. Fernando Torres has played the entire season for Chelsea and scored 4. Bringing it closer to home, Thierry has scored one more goal in that short time-span than Marouane Chamakh has since November 2010.
And this is not to slag off Chamakh, it’s to illustrate what a difference having a player of quality on the bench can make. Of course you can’t just go out and buy a Thierry Henry but having options, having a bench that can contribute is what can change a mediocre result into a good one, or save a defeat from being just that. As I said, I don’t want to take anything away from yesterday or Thierry’s moment, because that’s what we should be focusing on, but it’s impossible to look at him and what he does and not try to find some kind of context to it.
Overall though, the team and the manager deserve props this morning for taking a very difficult three points yesterday. To come from behind and win against a team like Sunderland who worked really hard and didn’t tire the way I had expected them to after their 120 midweek minutes, deserves credit. That’s actual mental strength as well as some moments of footballing quality when it counted. It’ll energise them and boost confidence, and as much as the 7-1 last week felt necessary, so did this and in these circumstances.
Finally for today, the iPhone/iPad app has just had an update which fixes some of the bugs. You can download it directly from the app store and the link, along with details of our other apps, can be found on our mobile apps page.
Right, that’s yer lot. Have a good, basking in victory Sunday. Till tomorrow.