Before I get labeled as a hopeless optimist and someone who doesn’t want to face the very real possibility of Arsenal finishing fifth, let me just say that Saturday’s game against Sunderland frustrated me immensely. It was another game without a goal, another missed opportunity and another painful exhibition of what we lack in the centre of the park.
But it was by no means a hopeless performance.
Arsene Wenger’s decision to start Andrey Arshavin surprised many people but the manager was rewarded with an individual performance full of promise. He was unlucky to not get a goal too, shooting agonisingly wide as early as the fourth minute and forcing the Sunderland goalkeeper’s best save of the game on the half-hour. He also set Nicklas Bendtner up with a lovely cross just before half-time before understandably fading out of the game as his fitness deteriorated, replaced by Carlos Vela.
Aside from the opening half-hour, when Sunderland forced Manuel Almunia into a couple of saves and looked quite decent on the break, we controlled the game and absolutely dominated possession. Absolutely. The fact that the Sunderland players were playing keep-ball in the corner with the scores at 0-0 with over five minutes to go indicated just how much they were overrun.
The problem was, as it often has been this season, the centre of midfield. But anyone who expects the performances of Alex Song and Denilson to be berated on this blog should look elsewhere. In contrast, I thought the pair did the job that they were set out to do admirably.
Creativity is not the pair’s strong point but in the absence of Cesc Fabregas all we can realistically ask is that they win the battle in the centre of the park. They did so comfortably and should be praised for it. By half-time they had made the centre of the park their own, such to the extent that one of the pair could have been substituted soon after for a more incisive, attacking player. That the manager waited until the 78th minute to bring off Song for Emmanuel Eboue and shuffle Samir Nasri into the middle was criminal. He could and should have done that as early as the 50th minute. His failure to do so cost the team badly as one scuffed shot by Vela was all Arsenal had to show for their efforts until Song was taken off.
Looking back on the game as a whole, I’m not overly upset with the performance. It was disappointing, yes, and extremely frustrating, but the signs are good in my opinion. We made plenty of chances in the first half – van Persie’s chipped shot, Bendtner’s header and the two Arshavin shots immediately jump to mind – and if any of those efforts had gone in it would have been a cakewalk. But once again we were made to pay for not scoring early as Sunderland effectively shut up shop.
Once we break our 0-0 rut, which is nothing more than an excruciating novelty in my eyes, we will be fine. Our defence looks strong and so does our goalkeeper. Van Persie again looked sharp, Bendtner is improving while Arshavin is more than capable of playing as well as he did against Sunderland in future games. Eduardo is back and Theo Walcott is on his way. We will start to score – it’s not a hope but a formality.
Arsenal’s next six Premier League games are three home contests against Fulham, Blackburn and Manchester City and three away trips to West Brom, Newcastle and Wigan. Aston Villa, on the other hand, host Stoke, Tottenham and FA Cup conquerors Everton and have to travel to Manchester twice and play Liverpool at Anfield. They will drop points. We’re likely to drop some too, but some quick maths indicate to me that we’ll be at least level with Villa by the second week of April. You read it here first.
And that’s all I want to say, really. I admit that another 0-0 draw is hardly the most satisfying result in the world, but aside from the continued frustration of the failure to score it was not a disaster. The defence looked solid, Song and Denilson did their job and if the manager had been just a little more proactive we would have won the game. He wasn’t and we didn’t, and it’s as simple as that.
Anyway, Roma is up next in what should be an excellent game. Keep smiling if you can.
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