van Persie 1,81 – Larsson 31
Arsenal collected three precious Premier League points with a win over Sunderland, but it was not a performance that will have given the Gunners any real confidence that their recent sticky patch is coming to an end.
In fact bar a few moments of Robin van Persie brilliance, it was a stilted and workmanlike display from Arsene Wenger’s side against a Sunderland outfit that showed very little in terms of attacking intent.
Arsenal were able to push Alex Song into his preferred holding midfield position thanks to the return of Lauren Koscielney at centre-back, who lined up alongside Per Mertersacker in the back four. Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta pulled the creative strings in midfield, with Theo Walcott and Gervinho flying down the wings. Van Persie, who pledged his commitment to the club in the match day programme, was the lone striker.
Sunderland lined up in a similar formation, but with three midfielders across the middle of the park, rather than having the one holding midfielder. Steve Bruce handed the responsibility of preventing Arsenal from playing to Lee Cattermole, David Vaughan and Jack Colback. The creativity was to come from Ahmed Elmohamady and Seb Larsson, who was returning to his first club. The line was led by Stephane Sessegnon.
With the tension in the air at a relatively sparsely populated Emirates Stadium, the Gunners really needed a fast start. 29 seconds later Arsenal had the fastest goal of the Premier League season. John O’Shea pushed forward to pinch the ball, but only succeeded in giving the ball to Rosicky. He immediately played the ball into the space vacated by the right-back, allowing Gervinho to gallop forward. The Ivorian then squared the ball across the 18 yard line for van Persie to drill into the net.
The opening minutes of the game were a van Persie master class. In the 11th minute the Dutch striker produced a delightful turn on the edge of the area before chipping the stranded goalkeeper, only to see the ball come back off the post. Three minutes later he produced a delightful sidestep to wrong-foot Michael Turner before driving his shot just wide of the post.
Arsenal were completely dominating the game with Sunderland having offered very little in terms of possession or threat. However when they did finally exert some pressure on the Arsenal back four, it cracked. Conceding a free kick 30 yards out, Larsson curled in a wonder strike, right into the top corner for the leveller.
Now with the confidence of the goal, and knowing the brittle nature of the Gunners’ self-belief, Sunderland should have gone in front five minutes later. Sessegnon was played in down the left and he bided his time before picking out Lee Cattermole. But the Sunderland skipper was denied by a wonder save from Szczesny, the Arsenal ‘keeper spreading himself to block Cattermole’s header from three yards out.
The second-half was pretty much a non-event. Sunderland were more than happy to sit back and soak up pressure, leading them to concede a host of free-kicks around their penalty area. After wasted efforts by Arteta and Walcott, van Persie took responsibility when the Gunners were awarded another set-piece 30 yards out with nine minutes to go. The Dutchman stepped up and trumped Larsson’s strike, curling his effort up and over the wall and winning the game for Arsenal.
Arsenal (4-1-2-3): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielney, Gibbs (Andre Santos 50); Song; Rosicky (Benayoun 76), Arteta; Walcott, Gervinho (Arshavin 67), aan Persie
Sunderland (4-3-3): Mignolet; O’Shea, Turner, Brown, Richardson; Cattermole (Gardner 87), Vaughan, Colback; Elmohamady, Larsson (Dong-Win Ji 67), Sessegnon (Wickham 79)
Did you know…This has been Arsenal’s worst start to a season since 1976, when they finished 17th. Since Arsene Wenger arrived in 1996, the Gunners have not finished outside the top 4.