There was a bevvy of Salut! Sunderland contributors in the Kings Arms on Saturday lunchtime – a bevvy being the collective noun for a group of like minded people meeting in a boozer – and we were all optimistically predicting a home win whilst secretly expecting to get nothing from the game. We elected not to drown our collective sorrows after the match but you will doubtless read our own thoughts in the comments sections of the post Arsenal articles and podcasts which appear on this site. M Salut, was not there, ensconced as he is in his French château but his thoughts can be found on his ESPN blog at http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/sunderland/id/2060. As usual the esteemed Peter Sixsmith presents his own view of the game, as seen from his seat high in the East Stand.
Where to start?
• With the team selection, which handed the first half to Arsenal?
• With the huge improvement in the second half that gave us a glimmer of hope in what is already looking like a very difficult season?
• With the undoubted quality of the Arsenal midfield?
• With the controversy arising from the Altidore/Sagna/Atkinson situation?
• With Di Canio being sent off?
It’s a tricky one!
The team selection came first so let’s have a look at that. Arsenal lined up with 5 international midfielders – Walcott, Ozil, Flamini, Wilshere and Ramsey, with four of them playing in the centre and only Walcott wide. We lined up with Vaughan and Ki in our middle with Mavrias and Johnson out wide. It came as no surprise that the Arsenal 4 completely bossed the midfield for the first 45 minutes as our two ran around trying to get the ball. Neither of them are tacklers and they were easily swept aside by players who were far better than they were.
We played two up front, which looks like a luxury if the midfield cannot get hold of the ball. It’s good to attack, but I can’t think of many teams who play two orthodox centre forwards as we did. It could be argued (and it’s a good point) that Arsenal were weak in the middle of the back four, with Sagna and Koscielny not the strongest combination. They had difficulties when we got the ball up to Fletcher and Altidore, but we saw so little of the ball in the first half that they were looking for scraps. Di Canio clearly wants to play football and the pedestrianism of the last two years is much less in evidence. But we need some steel in there as well in order to win the ball and spread it wide to our wingers. Vaughan and Ki cannot do that job.
As a result, a very good Arsenal side were made to look even better. After we made a decent start, they woke up, yawned, scratched themselves and went down and scored, with Ozil playing a delightful pass to Giroud who swept it home. A goal of the highest quality which started with Altidore losing the ball in their penalty area and finished with Westwood picking the ball out of the net.
Westwood kept us in the game in the first half, making three outstanding saves, while Walcott dithered over whether to head the ball or side foot it in and ended up doing neither. He had a disappointing game despite Colback and Mavrias giving him plenty of space.
Despite all their possession, we almost equalised when Diakite (a much improved performance from him) hit the bar with a header and Altidore forced a good save out of Szczesny. However, there was a feeling at half time that this could get bloody unless we improved.
And improve we did. Gardner came on to put a bit of bite into midfield and within three minutes he was slamming home a penalty after Koscielny had brought down Johnson. A clumsy and needless challenge from the Frenchman as Johnson was heading away from goal, but it got us into the game, stirred the crowd and for a while Arsenal lost focus. Gardner is a consummate penalty taker and also a consummate collector of yellow cards and he got one a couple of minutes later, but at least he was tackling and harrying and the Super 3 of Ozil, Wilshere (still not convinced by him) and Ramsey looked distinctly rattled.
We had a goal disallowed for offside and at the 65th minute stage, we looked the likeliest winners. Then, our energy levels dropped a wee bit and they got back into it. We failed to mark Jenkinson, who received a short corner from Ozil, he looked up and picked out an unmarked Ramsey who scored with a cracking volley.
Now we come to the controversial bit. This one will take up acres of newsprint and will be done to death on radio and TV. So, let’s be short and sweet about it and say that Martin Atkinson was wrong, wrong, wrong on both counts. First of all, he should have waited a few seconds before giving the foul by Sagna on Altidore. He didn’t but having given it, he then had to send the Arsenal man off as he had clearly prevented a goal scoring opportunity. He didn’t. The assessor may well be having words with him after two very poor interpretations of the spirit of the game and the rules. As a result, he may well be appearing at Scunthorpe or Accrington next week.
There was enough time for Ozil to set up another good goal for the very impressive Ramsey and for our manager to get himself sent off after Atkinson inexplicably allowed Giroud to leave the pitch at the half way line rather than go off behind the goal. Make it Frickley Athletic or Bradford PA next week.
There was a sense of frustration and disappointment as we left, after warm and genuine applause for the players who had done very well in the second half. But the first half was a worry and the team selection was, once again, difficult to fathom. We really cannot start as badly as we have done for the last two games and rely on substitutions to get us back into the game. Chasing the game is difficult for the best sides, never mind one in transition as we are.
Next week at West Brom is as important a game as Di Canio has had at Sunderland. We need a win as points have to be picked up at the clubs who will be around us and we have already dropped seven to Palace, Fulham and Southampton. Albion scored their first goal late on at Fulham and will be looking to start their season. We must get ours under way, or I can see another disastrous campaign stretching out before us.
At least Durham won the cricket!!!
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