For the first time this season Arsenal showed traces of the fragility that has hamstrung their title challenges in recent seasons. The Gunners were looking to carry on where they left off prior to the international break – having been in seemingly imperious form – as they sought a maximum return from their trip north to keep the pressure firmly on Chelsea leading into next week’s crunch match.
However, they succumbed to their third defeat of the season, but it is the first time that they genuinely have no grounds to feel aggrieved at the result. Wenger was quick to identify that fact: “We were much better at Manchester City and much better at Manchester United, that’s for sure. And today we were not good enough. I don’t deny that.” The previous defeats in the north were punctuated by slightly unfortunate turning points going against the Gunners. This time around Arsenal never truly threatened. Steve Bruce’s Sunderland harried and hassled a lacklustre Arsenal side that looked decidedly jaded after the international break.
It was the first match back without their increasingly talismanic striker Robin van Persie, and as Arsenal hit the road without their‘van’ for the first time this season, concerns arose that they lacked a cutting edge. Early pressure allayed these fears, albeit only temporarily. Tomas Rosicky nearly rifled home from the edge of the area after Cesc Fabregas’ hooked cross picked out the Czech’s late dart into the box. Alex Song combined with Eduardo, almost juggling the ball into the net as the Gunners resorted to the unordthodox in the face of a resolute Sunderland defence. Without the Dutchman, Arsenal undoubtedly lack a presence up front, but with their plethora of vibrant ball players they certainly have enough to unlock the majority of defences. It is key that Arsenal adapt in the coming weeks and although the 4-3-3 formation has worked well so far, it may be time to try something new as the focal point of the trident has been blunted by van Persie’s injury.
This was also the first league game this term where Arsenal have failed to score. Perhaps the Gunners were guilty of losing focus on the task in hand, letting their minds wander to the much anticipated forthcoming London derby. Wenger’s men looked sluggish and a shadow of the team that has lit up the league so far. The manager admitted as much, hinting that perhaps they had let their focus wander: “Now it is important to win our next game… and forget about Chelsea.”
Thomas Vermaelen looked uncharacteristically suspect from crosses, getting caught underneath the ball on a few occasions on Saturday. The Belgain’s aerial prowess has been evident at both ends of the field so far this season, yet Arsenal have conceded seven goals from corners this campaign – the most in the Premier League. Surely Wenger is aware of this fact, making his post-match statement all the more mystifying: “We gave a goal away in the only situation where Sunderland could score – at a set-piece.” This begs the question that if Arsenal have conceded the most goals from corners in the league and a set-piece was the Black Cats’ only hope of scoring, then why was the corner not dealt with and furthermore, why was Darren Bent afforded so much room within the six-yard box?
Whilst media focus was upon a poor Arsenal performance, kudos must go to Sunderland. It is worth remembering that they have already beaten Liverpool and were only denied three points at Old Trafford by a last-gasp equaliser after being reduced to 10-men. Bruce had hailed Wenger as a “genius” in the build up to the game and it is apparent that an element of mind games was at play. The two have a well-documented relationship, and the respect appears to be genuine, however the timing of the flattery must have been part of Bruce’s game plan. Wenger seems painfully aware of this now that the dust has settled and with a blunt response, refused to comment directly on whether Sunderland had improved this year:“You need to judge them when they play against a team of their level.”
Arsenal underestimated their opponents, a mistake they are unlikely to repeat as they host Standard Liege on Tuesday and the Belgians will justifiably fear a backlash as the Gunners look to confine Saturday’s result to just a blip in their season.