An embarrassing defeat to AC Milan in midweek meant that Arsenal’s FA Cup 5th tie against Sunderland was without doubt the most important in their season so far. Calls for a squad shake up in the summer have circled the media in recent days, many around the club simply feeling the team are no longer good enough to compete at Europe’s highest level.
Their opponents Sunderland have been in fantastic form since the arrival of manager Martin O’neill before the turn of the year. Winning four of their last six games, their only defeat in that time coming against Arsenal just a week ago. Many may have felt their recent encounter would give Arsenal a psychological advantage, but after Wednesday’s Champions League defeat, there were no signs of any type of advantage for the away team.
Despite a bright few minutes an early injury to Francis Coquelin meant a change to Arsenal’s back four, Sebastien Squillaci came on to play centre back, and the usually dependable Thomas Vermaelen was forced to operate on the left side of defence. For the remainder of the half Arsenal struggled to regain momentum, there only real chance falling to Robin Van Persie which was dealt with by a well timed challenge from John O’Shea. Sunderland continued to do what any Martin O’Neill side does do – not allowing any time for their opponents. Stéphane Sessègnon looked dangerous up front for the home team, his pace often troubling a nervy Arsenal defence. And they were rewarded for their efforts just before the forty minute mark, when a cleared free kick fell to winger Kieran Richardson who expertly placed his shot past keeper Lukasz Fabianski.
The second half involved what many of Arsenal’s games have done this season; possession, patience but the inability to make clear chances. The Sunderland players had to work off the ball for long periods of the game, but were never willing to give Arsenal the slightest of advantages. Lee Catermole kept Arteta quiet and wingers Sebastien Larsson and James McClean looked dangerous on the counter attack. In contrast the Arsenal wide men failed to cause trouble for their opponents. On one side an evidently deflated Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggled to look dangerous. On the other a returning Gerviniho from international duty often failed to produce a final ball, all in all adding up to a lack of support for Van Persie. And it was Oxlade-Chamberlain at fault for Sunderland’s second and fatal goal. The youngster, who has hugely impressed this season, lost possession high up the pitch spurring a Sunderland counter attack. Sessègnon traveled with the ball before laying off to Larsson whose strike rebounded off the post only to bounce back off of the recovering Chamberlain who could not prevent the inevitability of an own goal.
There were not many boos from Arsenal fans at the final whistle, either the result of renewed expectations for their side, or just from the fact that most had left the Stadium of Light way before the game had ended.
- Johan Djourou once again looked uncomfortable all game, often misjudging the flight of the ball and was slow on the turn amidst the presence of Sessègnon.
- Sunderland had an excellent work ethic, no doubt installed to them through Martin O’Neill. No complaints, they were the better team on the day.
- Arsenal failed to play at a quick enough tempo, players often dribbled with the ball when one and two touch passing was needed. Something we are not use to seeing from Arsene Wenger’s side. Generally they looked affected from their midweek defeat but will need to pick themselves up quickly to prevent the season quickly becoming a disaster.
Man of the Match – Stéphane Sessègnon. The lone striker worked tirelessly all game and proved a constant threat to Arsenal.