As Arsenal head into the last week of the season, they will do so having done nearly everything in their power, since their disastrous start to 2017, to sneak into the Champions League once again. On Tuesday, against Sunderland at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal were able to work their way into the expected result, eventually winning 2-0. The Gunners had periods of total domination, yet at times still looked vulnerable to a well-timed through ball into pacey opposing forwards. Surprisingly, given the flurry of matches Arsenal have been forced to play down the homestretch, the Gunners’ energy levels were not an issue. It looked as though Arsenal were trying to make quick work of Sunderland, and though it took until the second half for them then break through, the pace and skill of the focused home side overwhelmed the Sunderland defense, despite a world class goalkeeping performance by Jordan Pickford.
Without further ado: 5 major talking points from Tuesdays match
A Tale of Two Teams (In One)
It is really easy to ask ‘what if’ when you look at the two totally different Arsenal teams that have showed up to play this season. On the one hand, the version of summer, autumn and late spring could beat Chelsea 3-0, practically taunting the Blues with the most infectious blend of swagger and class in the country. Then there is the version of Arsenal whose form seems to go cold with the weather, leaving the festive period feeling anything but for the fans. It doesn’t take long to understand the mercurial behaviour of the club’s best performer this season, Alexis Sanchez, as the team around him oscillates between classy and invisible.
Against Sunderland, it looked as though we would be treated to the classy, confident Arsenal right from the first whistle, and largely, we were. The pace and assertive ball movement in the first quarter of the match was a sight not seen since the long unbeaten run last autumn, in which the little magician, Santi Cazorla, was still pulling the strings in the midfield. Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin, and Mesut Ozil were all making adventurous runs early on, in addition to the usual amount of industry from Alexis and a surprisingly crisp Olivier Giroud. Sunderland were rather fortunate to survive the onslaught of intricate passing moves and assertive drives toward the box. By the time Arsenal had broken through in the second half, it had stopped being an even fight, but after surviving the early aggression of the Gunners attack, Sunderland spent the second 20 minutes of the first half creating some opportunities themselves. Were it not for the slippery conditions and some solid last line defending, the Black Cats could have easily found themselves the first on the score sheet. After halftime, Arsenal once again picked up their level of play, and by 65 minutes, were in total control of the match once gain.
Admittedly, Arsenal have not had the same sort of troubles this season with injuries as they had in seasons past. One only has to look at the lack of headlines shouting about injuries, as just about every other reason has been cited for why Arsene Wenger should walk at the end of this season. Clearly, improvements have been made on that front, as with the exception of the recurring Achilles issues for Santi Cazorla and unfortunate injuries that just happen in football, the team has had fewer issues this season.
There seem to exist, however, certain players in the squad that cannot shake injuries once they happen, and the recurrence throughout the entire season hurts both the player and the team. Aaron Ramsey had only just started finding the sort of form that he had with Wales last summer before he again went down with a calf injury. Compounded with the loss of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the match prior, this could become a far larger issue for the Gunners, particularly if either player is unable to claw back into contention for the FA Cup final against Chelsea. Of note: Laurent Koscielny missed the Sunderland match due to a stubborn Achilles injury. According to the Frenchman, he was missing the match Tuesday in order to be ready for the final two matches of the season.
A Spectator Sport?
Well, it was Sunderland on a Tuesday, so what do you expect? Sadly, for this team and its fans, the scene was rather representative of this season at the Emirates. An atmosphere that doesn’t exactly rival Selhurst Park on a good day was poisoned by the December swoon that permanently pushed Arsenal out of the title race and the remaining patience of many Wenger fans out along with it. The Emirates Stadium was roughly half full, despite what any tickets sold figures might suggest. The crowd threatened to be vocal in the first 20 minutes of the match, perhaps sensing the pace and purpose of the Gunners’ attacks in the early going. After Sunderland were able to tighten up and slow down the game the crowd receded to the dull, murmuring mean.
It may be the end of the season against a lacklustre opponent, but Arsenal are still fighting for a Champions League berth. The atmosphere has been a huge problem at the Emirates ever since it opened, and this season it has been allowed to atrophy. Whether or not Arsene Wenger should shoulder the blame, the fans have done a poor job making noise when the team plays at home. Regardless of who is in charge next season, the fans showing up to the stadium need to start making some noise as fans throughout the country seem to have little trouble doing on behalf of their teams.
An Amoeba of Attack
After Alexis Sanchez was finally able to break the deadlock after an hour of football, what followed was one of the most explosive and purposeful flurries of attacks this team has reeled off all season. Arsene Wenger is marrying his avante garde attacking principles with the security of a three man back line, and for 30 minutes of dominating football, it approached near perfection. If it wasn’t for an insanely talented young goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, the score could have been 7-0 without seeming unfair, given the balance of play. Mesut Ozil set a Premier League record with 12 chances created and Arsenal took 36 shots, of which 11 were saved by Pickford. There were times in that final 30 minute flurry of action when Arsenal’s attack was completely untethered to shape: the ball flowed between players; players floated between positions. At one point, even Nacho Monreal, playing as the left-sided centre-back, played himself into the box with a 1-2 pass. Alex Iwobi made an energetic cameo, looking sharper than the tired young man who was first dropped from the XI around 2 months ago. If Arsenal are able to continue to attack like an Arsene Wenger coached team should, while maintaining their newly stingy defense, the talk will stop being about the teams futile attempts at last seasons in vogue formation, and start being about how stubborn, set in his ways Arsene changed to take his beloved club to the next level.
One Still To Catch
With Manchester City’s concurrent victory against West Brom, Arsenal are now down to their final chance to sneak into the top four: Liverpool must drop points in their final match against Middlesbrough. There is no doubt that should Arsenal miss out, many will feel it signals the end for Arsene Wenger. While I still believe we see the Frenchman back in charge for at least one more season, the club MUST understand that changes, both in the squad and backroom staff, are a must if they wish to win back the support of the many fans who finally have had enough of the status quo this season. The hopes of the fans, board, manager, accountants, Piers Morgan, and possibly, future transfer targets all rest on Middlesbrough holding Liverpool to a 0-0 draw (any other positive outcome requires Middlesbrough to score, which probably won’t happen) at Anfield.