Sunday, 6 March 2011

Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland: Two Points Dropped But It's Far From Over.

Where do we go from here, is it down to the lake I fear? The ups and downs of life as an Arsenal supporter are enough to try the patience of a saint, and yesterday's game against Sunderland was no different than so many others in recent history. It was a must win game for Arsenal with the chance to close the gap at the top of the Premier League to just one point, but a combination of inept officialdom and disappointing play from Arsenal led to a 0-0 draw.

With Arsenal's injury list now containing some of their most influential players Arsene Wenger had to change things around a little. That meant he included Abu Diaby, Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner in the team, but crucially Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, Theo Walcott and Alex Song were all absent. With two more huge games to come in the next week Arsenal had to get the three points at any cost.

I've never been a fan of the combination of Diaby and Denilson in midfield, and I worried before the game when I saw the team selection. I still can't see what Denilson brings to the team when he is included, and he only looks capable when he has two better players with him in midfield. Diaby has the ability that is required to be a very good player, but his inconsistency is his biggest problem, and that was what he produced yesterday.

The inclusion of Bendtner as the centre forward looked like a good choice before the game after he scored a FA Cup hat-trick against Leyton Orient on Wednesday night. He can be a good player when he chooses to play well, but the biggest complaint about him among Arsenal fans is his belief in exactly how good he thinks he is. Yesterday he decided that Arsenal needed a playmaker, and he thought he was the man for the job. I lost count of how many times he dropped back to take possession when he should have been the focal point of the Arsenal attack. When Arsenal got the ball into wide positions at times he was standing back admiring the play instead of sprinting into the box where he was needed.

From the start of the game Arsenal never really got going, and the absence of Cesc and RVP was there for all to see. There was no driving force in the team, and the only player who could provide it was played in a wide role. I cannot understand why Samir Nasri was played on the right side of the front three players, and for me it was a big mistake by the boss in my opinion. Jack Wilshere did all he could to provide the spark needed from the centre of midfield, but he was on his own with Diaby and Denilson so ineffective.

Sunderland were far more lively at the start, and it took Arsenal a while to get any sort of fluency. After 10 minutes Clichy put in a great ball from the left, but Bendtner just failed to make contact with the goal gaping. The ball was put back in by Bacary Sagna, and Nasri's shot was easily saved. As the half wore on Arsenal were still very lethargic, and Sunderland were first to react to any loose balls. Sunderland created a couple of chances, and Wojciech Szczesny made one particularly good save during that first half. 

Arsenal stepped up the pace a little in the last 10 minutes of the first half, and Nasri used his magical feet to weave his way through three or four defenders, but his cut back was deflected out for a corner. When the corner came in the ball fell to Bendtner, but his attempted overhead kick was straight at the keeper. Only five minutes later Wilshere played a beautiful ball through to put Bendtner in on the keeper. He was to the right of the goal, and he blasted his shot goalwards, but the keeper made a fine save to put the ball out for a corner. Half time arrived with no goals for either team, and Arsenal needing to pick up the pace in the second 45 minutes.

Unfortunately Arsenal started poorly in the second half too, and it was a very scrappy affair for a while with neither team doing much to impress. The boss obviously agreed with my opinion on the contribution of Denilson, and he replaced him with Marouane Chamakh in the 62nd minute. It meant Bendtner went on the right, and Nasri dropped into a central midfield role. Almost immediately Chamakh made an impact, as he escaped down the right and cut the ball back to Andrei Arshavin in the Sunderland box. He wasin a great position, but his first time shot was straight at the keeper who still did well to claw it away. Arshavin should have scored, but the ball did bobble a little on it's way to him which probably meant he all he could just to get it on target.

Soon after that Arsenal had another chance to take the lead when Laurent Koscielny was taken down just outside the Sunderland box. Nasri stepped up and hit the free kick over the wall, but the keeper got a strong hand to it and kept it out. The ball may not have been right in the top corner, but it was still an excellent save, and Arsenal looked destined not to score against Simon Mignolet. Only three minutes later Arsenal came even closer to scoring when a Wilshere cross was headed onto the bar by Chamakh with the keeper beaten. I thought Chamakh should have scored, but he just didn't head the ball down as he should have done in my opinion.

Tomas Rosicky came on for Diaby with 14 minutes left, and it was a question of whether Sunderland could hold on to their point or not at that stage. With ten minutes left Nasri made room for himself in the Arsenal half, and he played a perfect ball behind the Sunderland defence for Arshavin to run through on goal. He was held by Titus Bramble, but he continued into the box, and just as he shot Bramble pushed him which caused the shot to go wide. It just had to be a penalty, but the officials weren't interested.

With only seven minutes left Szczesny came to Arsenal's rescue again with a fine save to deny Danny Wellbeck. From the resulting corner he again saved from point blank range before the rebound was put over the bar. The clock was ticking and it looked like Arsenal had lost the chance to move within one point of "Manure" at the top. There was to be one more incident for the officials to make a mess of though. Bendtner played a ball behind the Sunderland defence for Arshavin to run onto, and he was flagged offside as he made his way past the keeper and put the ball into an empty net. The replays showed that Arshavin was clearly onside, and it summed up an inept display by the officials.

The were four minutes of added time and Arsenal did manage to create one more chance in that time, but Bendtner's point blank header from a Rosicky cross was too weak, and the keeper saved it easily. The final whistle went and the sense of disappointment was there for all to see. Arsenal had blown the chance to put real pressure on "Manure" ahead of their tough trip to Liverpool, and it looked to be a very costly result. 
After the game the boss said he was too disgusted to speak about the two incidents involving Arshavin. He did say that these type of decisions have too big an impact on the Premier League and Arsenal are deeply disappointed. I don't think he could have said much more without getting himself in trouble with the FA, but he clearly was very frustrated that Arsenal had failed to collect all three points.

I think the points were there for the taking for Arsenal, but as a team they didn't get their game going for long spells in both halves. The inclusion of both Denilson and Diaby in midfield just does not work, and that was the choice of the boss. If I can see that Nasri has to be played in a central role when Cesc is out then surely he can see that as well. I know Nasri offers a lot when he plays on the right, but he is the only real replacement for Cesc. The boss has chosen the current system that Arsenal are playing, and that system calls for a player to be the creative player in midfield. If Cesc cannot play then he just has to play Nasri there, and there's no two ways about it.

The two incidents involving Arshavin weren't the only ones that the officials got wrong throughout the game, as they displayed a level of ineptitude that has become very common in the Premier League. There were numerous incidents where Sunderland players came in from behind Arsenal players and took the ball after kicking the player. The referee decided they were all legitimate challenges, and it just showed his lack of understanding of the game. If you get the man before the ball it is a free kick, and if the referee cannot understand that he should not be refereeing. 

I also was annoyed at the amount of times the referee stopped play for free kicks when the team offended against were in possession. It doesn't make sense to do that, but it just illustrates how little referees really know about the game. I don't hold out any hope of the FA doing anything to improve the quality of the referees, as they seem perfectly happy to back them regardless.

The point gained by Arsenal turned out to actually close the gap to just three pints as "Manure" were soundly beaten 3-1 by Liverpool thanks to a Dirk Kuyt hat-trick. Arsenal have a game in hand on the league leaders and it's all to play for at the top of the league, but yesterday could so easily have brought so much more. Arsenal don't play in the league again for two weeks, as next weekend is devoted to the FA Cup quarter finals. That league game will be away to struggling West Brom, and then there's a two week international break which will hopefully give RVP a chance to recover.

RVP has missed Arsenal's last two league games and they have only scored once in those games which is a very ominous sign. He was in fantastic form before his injury, and he is needed very badly for the run in. His goals could be the difference between Arsenal winning the league, or falling at the final hurdle yet again. I have no doubt in my mind that Arsenal would have beaten Sunderland yesterday if both Cesc and RVP had been able to play, and very few teams can cope without their very best players. The players who have filled in for them have not performed brilliantly, but how do you replace the likes of Cesc and RVP in any team? You cannot keep players who are as good as them on the bench, or they will look to play their football elsewhere.

Next up for Arsenal is the trip to Barcelona, and I'll deal with that in the next couple of days. After that there's the little matter of an FA Cup quarter final next Saturday evening away to "Manure", and it certainly makes for an interesting life as an Arsenal fan.

That's it for today.
 Here's the highlights from yesterday's game.

See You Tomorrow.

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