Arsenal 2-0 Sunderland: Goalkeeping heroics, Alexis does it again, and empty seats


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I suspect this is a game in which my stats-based chum @7amkickoff (he has resisted the repeated calls to rename himself Statsy O’Toole) will have a field day with. Arsenal set a new record for attempts on goal apparently (36), while Mesut Ozil definitely set a new record for the most chances created in one game by any player since Premier League records began (12).

It also saw Jordan Pickford make a record amount of saves (eleventy-billion and six), and for the longest time it looked as if it was going to be a night when the breakthrough never came. In the end, however, it was that man Alexis Sanchez, a force of nature, a goalscoring dustdevil, who got us the strikes we needed to take all three points and make the final day of the season interesting.

He won’t have had two easier finishes this season though, and while he’ll get the plaudits for scoring them, credit has to go to others for their contributions. For the first Granit Xhaka – who had been wafting his left-foot around like a pass-mastery wizard all night – clipped a lovely ball over the defence into the run of Ozil whose first-time cushioned half-volley back across the six yard box provided Sanchez with a tap-in.

And for the second a good cross from the right was kept alive well by the high foot of Olivier Giroud, Pickford got a hand to it, but the Chilean was quickest to react and score his 28th goal of the season. Can he break the 30 mark? With just two games left I really hope so, because they’d give us a good chance of winning those games if he did.

Was it cruel on Sunderland? No. Perhaps a little on Pickford, who was really outstanding, but I think it’s fair to say we didn’t quite play as well as might have and this was a defence that still allowed that many attempts on goal. They are a shambles really, and a combination of good goalkeeping and slack finishing kept things level.

The scene was set early on when Ramsey played Giroud in perfectly, and as much as it was a bad miss from the Frenchman with just the keeper to beat, I think it probably the save of the night too. We had 18 attempts in the first half, we should have done better with some of those opportunities, but it’s also worth pointing out that for all our domination Petr Cech had to make some important interventions in the first period – otherwise we might have found ourselves behind.

I thought as the first half went on we looked a bit leggy, some players on their fourth game in a little over 8 days, and I was surprised there weren’t a few more changes to the starting line-up. However, in the second there was more incision to our play, more pressure on Sunderland, and as the game headed into the final 20 minutes we brought on Welbeck and Iwobi for Ramsey and Gibbs, and went to a back four.

We huffed and we puffed, and eventually we blew their house down, but either side of the goals Pickford was doing his best to put himself in the shop window. I know making saves is part of a goalkeeper’s job, but if this is what he’s had to go through for most of this season, he must be knackered, poor lad.

On the basis of that performance alone he’ll have attracted some suitors. Not Arsene Wenger though, who was asked after the game if he’d be interested and said:

We have plenty of goalkeepers. We have Petr Cech, Ospina, we have Wojciech who is only on loan at Roma and has had an exceptional season. We have Emi Martinez. If there’s one thing we don’t need to buy, it’s a goalkeeper.

I do think we have bigger issues to sort out than goalkeeper next season, no question, but you can understand why people asked after a performance like that.  I also think the frustration at not finding the breakthrough for so long meant some good Arsenal performances went overlooked.

Ozil was superb, you can caveat that with the fact it was against the bottom of the table side, but there’s no doubt in recent weeks his form has been steadily improving, and with Wembley on the horizon that’s no bad thing. And once again Xhaka showed he’s becoming a big influence on how this team plays with some superb passing, both from deep and higher up the pitch as his ball for the opening goal showed.

As for Alexis, what can you say? As I wrote last week, in games like this, when you need someone to find that something extra and become the match-winner he’s the one who can do it. It goes without saying how important it is to keep him because even when he’s wasteful in possession he remains the guy who can make the difference in big games and small.

So, the win, and a win for Man City last night too, means it all goes down to the final day. It’s simple enough, we have to beat Everton and hope Liverpool drop points. Or if City drop points, we’d need to score a hat-full against the Toffees. It’s hard to feel confident, but if last year showed us anything it’s that anything can happen. Win our game, and let’s see if someone can do us favour.

The other main story from last night was how empty the Emirates was. Arsene Wenger’s comment about how it was midweek against Sunderland everyone expects a win isn’t in any way convincing. It’s clear that the club are not going to acknowledge it in a serious way in public, Wenger had insisted before the game that we were ‘sold out’, which may well be true, but the empty seats spoke volumes.

If it was Tuesday night against Sunderland and Arsenal were still in the title race, the stadium would be packed, simple as that. And while apathy may have played a part, the club ought not to bury its head in the sand and think that tickets sold is the right metric on which to judge things right now.

People are staying away, very deliberately, because ultimately it is the most effective way for supporters to protest. Marches, plane banners, and all the rest, pale into insignificance when you see thousands and thousands of empty seats inside a football ground.

Publicly they may not say anything about it, but it’s impossible that it wasn’t noticed. The prospect of empty seats + Europa League football makes Arsenal a bit less ‘blue chip’, but whether that prompts any response from on high remains to be seen. They could move to put bums back on seats with signings, and that still seems the more likely option than getting them back with a new manager, but it was a point made by fans last night that could not be ignored or dismissed as an empty gesture.

Whatever about not being able to sell tickets, but fans are willing not to go when they’ve already bought them, you’ve got problems.

Anyway, no doubt that’s something James and I will discuss on this week’s extra Arsecast Extra – coming up for you later this morning. As ever if you have questions/topics, please send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog with the hashtag #arsecastextra.

Catch you later on for the podcast.