Sunderland 1—Arsenal 1
First signs of an Arsenal wobble against a consistently effective Sunderland at home.
Arsenal midfielder Denilson may have undertaken a statistical study of Sunderland when he said, “You can’t expect to win at Sunderland because they have beaten the best sides here; it was always going to be a big game.”
Sunderland finished last season 13th in the table, winning nine games at home for 10th best in the league. Against top half teams, they went 5-3-2, which included wins against both Arsenal and Tottenham—the “big teams” as Denilson mentioned. If Denilson is insightful, he may be even cleverer. Paying Sunderland the compliment deflects the chronic problem of Arsenal’s collective defensive and focus, which lead to Sunderland’s injury time equalizer. This is not reflected in Sunderland’s numbers and hence easy for Denilson to miss.
Nothing in the game was surreal or unbelievable, in fact, it was somewhat predictable, yet there was a feel that the course of events were slightly dislodged from the axis (best reflected in this post), most notably Arséne Wenger charged with “insulting and/or abusive language and behavior amounting to improper conduct”. Here are a few.
1.) Cesc Fabregas Scores an Unlikely Goal.
Cesc Fabregas, from 35-yards out, deflects a panicked clearance from a slow-moving Anton Ferdinand. The ball sails over the Sunderland goalkeeper and slides down the goal’s back wall.
Initially a confident decision, Ferdinand backed up as the ball rolled toward him so that he had extra space and time to look upfield, identify a good opportunity, and initiate it with an effective pass. He took too long and advantage imploded on him as Fabregas—at first too far away to be a threat—sprinted in on Ferdinand and blocked the clearance. The exemplary play of the Arsenal captain paid the dividend, but imposed a steep price.
2.) Fabregas Imperceptibly Injures Himself on Unlikely Goal.
Fabregas injures himself on the goal. He peels off to the sideline and celebrates normally, then quickly clutches at his thigh. He continues to celebrate, but the smile contains a wince of pain.
He was substituted for Tomáš Rosicky fifteen minutes later.
3.) Late First Half.
Sunderland’s Chrístian Riveros knocks/pushes over and clearly fouls Alex Song. The referee, Phil Dowd, looking straight at them, sees nothing. Moments later Song is cautioned for softly tripping Jordan Henderson.
Separated by a few seconds, the two challenges should have made for easy refereeing consistency. With Song downed, Sunderland gained possession. Song, to his credit, quickly got up and stuck in, because play has not had much time to advance.
The insistence of Song’s low-grade harassment offended the referee’s sensibility far more than Titus Bramble hacking Jack Wilshere just below the knees as Wilshere was dribbling by Bramble and into the penalty box.
This case makes it difficult to find a reference to measure the yellow’s justification. The punishment was a bit harsh in relation to other fouls committed by both sides and a verbal warning would have been sufficient and appropriate.
Song’s play this season has seen him accumulate a number of small disruptive fouls in a single game, which leads to the possible reasoning that the caution was awarded based on accumulation (an unpunished Song foul minutes prior to the yellow on Steed Malbranque was more deserving of one), and not on any preceding call or a retaliation for a non-call. A player who accumulates pestering fouls, especially in the first half, often receives a clear verbal warning. Where the line is drawn becomes meaningless when there is evident inconsistency.
4.) Early Second Half.
Song continues to molest, as a result ineffectively, when his mellow is harshed again by a questionable second caution. Wenger is upset not so much by the call, but as is often the case, by the injustice of inconsistency throughout the game.
The second caution was shown for obstructing Malbranque, whose sturdy low center of gravity somehow failed him just as Song paused in his path. There was a touch of thespianism in his fall to the ground.
Having momentarily followed the ball rolling away from the challenge, it appeared the referee saw some of the collision in his peripheral vision, which would have captured the theatrical gesture while losing the detail. Malbranque pushed the ball too far forward to have any chance of moving around Song to retain possession, and instead attempted a direct route through the Arsenal midfielder. In turn, Song’s pressure successfully dispossessed Malbranque, but he hung or paused momentarily in the Frenchman’s path. So slight was the re-positioning that it was closer to a shift in balance, suggesting the collision was inevitable. If Song can be held responsible for the sending-off, it is lacking the awareness of how close to the line his physical challenges were taking him.
5.) Fifteen Minutes To Go.
Sunderland second half substitute Ahmed Elmohamady trips Samir Nasri in the penalty box. Rosicky takes the penalty and drives the ball over the crossbar.
Somehow one knew Rosicky would miss. His face, while lining up the shot, was a thumbnail for shattered confidence. Since few would remember his penalty history, Rosicky comments on his miss in the post-game interview, “Unfortunately, it was nothing new, I missed a penalty in a World Cup qualifier against Holland in autumn 2005.”
It was also unclear how he ended up taking the spot kick. There was no evidence of an on-field conversation or a message relayed from the sideline. Afterward, it was revealed that both Marouane Chamakh and Nasri “opted out”. The you-take-it/no-YOU-take-it couldn’t have bolstered Rosicky’s confidence.
According to Arséne Wenger, no communication is necessary. There is a set order of preferred penalty takers. Whichever eleven players are on the field, the official designee is clear. It is not determined by two refusals. Without Fabregas and Arshavin on the pitch, the penalty would fall to Nasri, who refused, and passed it off to Chamakh, who also refused, possibly because his timidity flared or he didn’t think he was the next in line. The why for both players is unclear.
Rosicky may have been next and felt duty called, or he wasn’t called, and as a veteran of the team, chose to show leadership. Unfortunately, many of his shots this season have been off-target and soft. This one, at least, was blasted. If initiative was his intent, it’s understandable and the right thing to do. But the miss perhaps exposes the lack of leadership on the team falls on to the veterans, far more than it can be pinned to youth.
The chance to ensure a 2—0 away win is not the situation for Rosicky to end a yearlong goal drought.
6.) Injury Time’s Added Extra Time.
Arsenal holds on through the designated extra time. In the dying seconds of extra time’s extra time, one last desperate cross bounces, pings, and deflects off bodies and mental blocks to the feet of Darren Bent who ties the game.
Through a fluky early goal leading to Fabregas’ substitution by Rosicky who later missed a penalty, Arsenal was encircled by misfortune and lack of concentration. Fighting successfully from the bunker is straightforward tooth-and-nail. Not consistently evident in their constitution, Arsenal has found this difficult to acquire.
In added extra time, Arsenal was broken down. Boudewijn Zenden, another substitution, desperately launched a cross, which dropped in short of the mass of players and on to the head of a Sunderland player. His unchallenged redirection fell to Asamoah Gyan who was facing goal and had a step on Sébastien Squillaci. To Squillaci’s credit, he closed the distance and had an opportunity to clear the ball, but instead decided to pull out of the play to let Gaël Clichy clear it, who, in turn, whacked it right into Laurent Koscielny. The ball took another vital deflection and fell to Darren Bent whose uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time was assisted on the occasion by Arsenal’s clueless display.
Denilson put the match in context. “It is not right to say we are not ready to win the league just because of this result.” Arsenal hopes Denilson is right once again. Dropping points from winning positions is a haunting statistic cited in retrospect for what could have been.