Pete Sixsmith presents his customary expert analysis and reflects on what might have been if only we’d been playing like this at the start of the season. Three points would have been a lot more reassuring, but this was a fine, fighting draw and keeps survival within our own hands…
Had this performance and result been in September, we would have been looking forward to the rest of the season. Had it been at the start of January, we would have been looking to pull well away from the drop zone and perhaps having a little cup run.
As it is, it arrives in the depths of April, five games from the end of the season and lifts us out of the relegation places on goal difference only – although you can cancel the “only” if it is that which keeps us up and sends the avian brotherhood down in three weeks’ time.
For this was a splendid performance where 13 players showed that they can follow the clear and thoughtful instructions given to them by their coaches and give a side that is in the running for a Champions League placing an uncomfortable afternoon which could have been even more uncomfortable had it not been for the huge frame of Peter Cech in the Gunners goal.
There is little doubt that Allardyce and his staff now know what their best XI and formation is. There is no room now for fiddling about, tweaking here and tinkering there. We have a good goalkeeper, a very solid back four, an energetic midfield which mixes class and industry and a forward who can score if presented with the opportunity. Add to that substitutes who fit in well and can give us a slightly different dimension and we look like a solid if unspectacular, Premier League side, heading for the lower regions of the top 10 or the higher regions of the bottom 10.
Compare that with the rag bag of a team that we had to suffer from August to the end of January. A goalkeeper who was bullied by Berahino; a back four that made a series of catastrophic errors whenever the opposition ran at them; a midfield that was lacking in urgency, brains and the ability to open up an opponent’s defence; forwards who never, ever looked like scoring.
Since then, the departure of the not very good giant Pantilimon has allowed Mannone to show that he is a good keeper. Kone has come in and has struck up an excellent partnership with Kaboul – they were so much in control in this game that I thought Giroud was going to start crying when his attempt to get a shot in was once again blocked by Kone.
Both full backs are quick and get up and down the line. Yedlin improves each game that he plays and van Aanholt is always a threat. Poor Billy Jones looks like a permanent bench warmer at the moment as does John O’Shea.
In midfield we are not exciting. There is no Ozil – not a miss if his tepid performance in this game is anything to go by – or Barkley or Fabregas. What we do have is guts and commitment from Cattermole, the constant probing of M’Vila, the coolness of Kirchhoff and, in this game, an excellent 90 minute performance from Wahbi Khazri who was busy and inventive throughout.
Up front, Borini supports Defoe and when the Italian tired, Watmore came on and caused some difficulties for a pedestrian Arsenal defence. Defoe can do what he likes; he scores goals.
For sure, Arsenal had 70 per cent possession but they did very little with it. We hit the bar, forced Cech into three very good saves and, in the closing stages of the game, had Mertesacker and Koscielny rocking almost as much as Jeff Blockley was on that never to be forgotten afternoon at Hillsborough 43 years ago. Well, maybe not quite as much, but allow an old man some leeway………
Three clean sheets out of the last four spells progress. It is difficult to imagine any defence that featured Jones and Coates doing the same. The partnership between Kone and Kaboul is as strong as the Watson/Pitt one and looks almost impenetrable (we’ll forget about Jamie Vardy for a moment).
Unfortunately, we have had three clean sheets at the other end as well and as we all know, goals win matches. We don’t score enough, particularly from midfield. Cattermole hasn’t scored, neither has Kirchhoff while Khazri and M’Vila have contributed one each. This may well prove to be our undoing as both Norwich and Newcastle can share the goals out among their players. Why, even Ginger Jack scored on Saturday.
Mike Dean could have given us a penalty. From my seat it was not clear but the manager thought it was and Monsieur Salut indicated that he would have given it. I’ll take anything at the moment if it gets us out of this mess and gives Allardyce time to build on the team pattern that he has created now.
Stoke City away next week and they are going through an awful spell now that they have been written about in such glowing terms in Salut! Sunderland. We can but hope that it continues at the newly named Bet 365 Stadium.
There is hope and a feeling that we can scrape home. If we do, there needs to be some detailed analysis from supporters and professionals as to why a club that can attract a smidgeon under 46,000 for a televised game on a bitterly cold day continues to struggle year after year.
Clubs with smaller stadiums, smaller attendances and a history of winning absolutely nothing can flourish in the top flight. It is utterly ridiculous that a club like Sunderland can do nothing but mount an annual battle to stave off relegation.