Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal: True Grit

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At halftime I felt like a script was about to be written which I had no desire to see played out. Essentially, it would be a variation on the same narrative that had been performed by previous Arsenal teams of several seasons past. The story would be similar to the one of Kevin Phillips’ 92nd minute equaliser away at Birmingham in 2010, and the eight goal calamity of St James Park in 2011. You can probably add a few of your own.

I turned to to Scottish Dave, who co-presents our podcast, and said: “You know how this plays out, right?”

"Shut up ye fanny. Get yer heid oot ae the doom trough," he replied, not unreasonably, while sipping the tea which I’d generously made him because I may be a depressive but I’m also a magnanimous host.

"Either one of our lot gets injured, probably one of the better players, or we get someone daftly sent off. It’s always like that when we dominate but don’t score enough away from home."

"SHUT UP BAWBAG!"

I did as commanded, without adding that the equaliser would undoubtedly be scored by a lumpy sort of player with his own story to spin. I already had one eye on Danny Graham, lurking unloved on the bench. What was going to make this inevitability particularly painful was that Arsenal really had been brilliant in the first half, with Cazorla applying the finish to a particularly Arsenalish team goal. It had been a world apart from the slow starts that had come to characterise January, and but for some profligate finishing and another goalkeeping masterclass by Mignolet, we ought to have been well out of sight.

In the end, both verbalised misfortunes came to pass. First Wilshere was fouled out of the game, the inevitable victim of a Sunderland team which had been comprehensively outplayed and so was sent out after the break to leave their feet in, and, if we’re being honest, our own manager’s refusal to rest a player who it’s easy to forget is still on the comeback from a long layoff. 

Next it was Jenkinson’s turn, here cast in the role of naive departee who’s done something absurdly daft, which you may remember being played by messrs Koscielny, Gervinho and Diaby in previous cock ups. But then something strange happened. Although Arsenal undoubtedly went into their shells after losing Jack, much as they have in the past when Cesc has limped from the field, the team did not wilt entirely.

Sagna, redeployed at centre back alongside the relatively calming presence of Big Per, led a rearguard action that also saw Ramsey filling in at right back. Loins were girded. Backs were placed against walls. Balls were headed the fuck out. Not that it helped the lake of acid pooling in my stomach. There can be few more stressful sights in sport than watching your undermanned team try to see out a one-nil win. It’s the hope etc. 

Plus, there’s something especially painful about watching post-Highbury Arsenal teams try to defend a narrow lead. But in the end the deathblow was never applied. Indeed we might have scored again, but for some ludicrous finishing by Giroud, who opted to shoot from outside the box despite being in a 3-on-2 overload, and then Santi, who was probably right to shoot, if not for the fact the shot was off target like an ICBM built in a garage by a particularly unscientifically-minded child.

With a couple of minutes to go until the end of normal time, and pressure mounting to Fukushima levels, Dave and I decided to do something we never normally do. (No, not that.) We decided to take the dog outside for a piss, rather than watch the last agonal moments play out, reasoning that if Sunderland were to score, as the string of corners suggested they were likely to, it’d be better not to see it, hear their fans, or watch the exact moment Arsene’s face changed from grumpy to distraught. 

Oddly, the dog was unusually efficient, and we were back in front of the computer before the clock had hit 90 minutes. Nonetheless, despite a couple of scares, the team held out and it was easy to see from the reaction of Sagna and Szczęsny (who had also been excellent) just what gutting out a result like this meant to the team. 

Thankfully, they’ll now have a full week to recover before facing Blackburn in the FA Cup. Even if Vermaelen, Wilshere and Koscielny return from injury in that time, I’d expect a few changes with the first leg against Bayern looming.

They’ve come at cost, but six points taken against the shitkickers of Stoke and Sunderland is worth celebrating. I also think it’d be overstating it to say that because we held on today, this team is somehow built of sterner stuff than previous sides who’ve capitulated. For starters the sample size – one game – is clearly too small, and moreover games like these swing on such tiny moments that you’d be unwise to read too much into the final result. Certainly we rode our luck at times. Nonetheless, given the league situation and Spurs form, it’s an absolutely vital win that the players can feel rightly proud of. 

Jenkinson has hopefully also learned a valuable lesson about how to play once you’re on a yellow, and without having seen his team punished in the process. Not that we can have any complaint about the sending off, other than the fact the referee, having rightly booked Catermole early, then seemed content to let them get on with rotational fouling and cynical tugs. 

Though I generally don’t like to complain about refs, it’s perhaps more convincing to do so after a win. Wenger is spot on when he says

"The referee let two or three things go that I thought were fouls on Jack. I want just the referee to give a foul when it’s a foul. I don’t want any special protection. The referee is not a bodyguard, he is just a referee and you want him just to give a foul when it’s a foul."

Note: not asking for Wilshere to be treated differently, just for fouls that are fouls to be called. I read a great piece last week on 7amkickoff that touched on how largely useless the advantage rule is. Over the course of the season I’d be staggered if advantages actually transpired into advantageous situations (by which I mean a goal-threatening position) any more than about 1% of the time. I’d almost always rather have a free kick and the fouler spoken to or booked. 

No doubt that’s just me being an effete Arsenal fan, and in a few years time pundits and England fans will talk about how it’s a shame Wilshere is a bit injury prone, rather than note that he’s been kicked, cynically, on a constant basis by opponents with little protection because of some doublethink like “well, his movement is too good, so he ends up getting hit all the time”. For now, though, this Arsenal team changed the script, and that’s good enough for me. 

– TDC

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