You should never look a gift horse in the mouth. So when two come trotting into the stables, you lasso them both and drag them over to you as quickly as possible.
Yesterday’s away victory up in the North East to the Mackems was not comfortable, it was not free-flowing, but it was very welcome. Sunderland contrived to give us two absolute pearlers of defensive errors, the likes of which we’ve seen on a few occasions go against us over the years. The one man who was the grateful recipient of the gifts – Alexis Sanchez – was also the best player on the pitch by a millions miles, so perhaps it was fitting that he was the one who was afforded the luxury of a centre half and goalkeeping blunder, such was his hard work both on and off the ball.
Within a couple of games at the start of the season we could all tell that Alexis would be a hit in England. Fans reward effort almost as much as attainment in this country, so when you have a player who regularly achieves top marks in both, you are always on to a winner. Whilst the papers and pundits today will talk about the game in the context of the Sunderland self-inflicted implosion, I’d like to offer a different school of thought, one which suggests that it was the energetic Chilean also had a role to play in the errors. Last season we did not have a pairing like Alexis and Welbeck to push from the front as high as those two players do, so it is highly likely that we would not have profited from the mistakes of Messieurs Brown and Mannone, come the final whistle. But this season, we have that higher pressing that will lead to mistakes if players don’t have time to react when they receive the ball.
Let’s also recognise that for the first goal, Alexis still had a lot to do as he bore down on Mannone. Picking the ball up just after the halfway line gives you three or four seconds of running before deciding what to do, in which time there is often plenty of room to decide where you’re placing the ball and making a wrong decision. Such was the confidence of our tireless superstar, that he simple ‘dinked’ the ball over Mannone, setting us on the way to a well deserved victory.
And you can’t deny that our victory wasn’t well deserved. We dominated possession for large swathes of the match, we had the most clear-cut chances, plus we looked the more assured defensively. In the first half Welbeck and Cazorla both fizzed shots over and just wide respectively, whilst our midfield of Arteta and Flamini controlled possession with consummate ease. Last season there we’d many of us who bemoaned the double pivote, but having watched a stuttering start to 2014/15 and the 4-1-4-1 formation, it was good for us to go back to basics.
Perhaps Arsène recognised the make-shiftiness of of our back four and realised that they needed a bit more protection. It worked. We were hardly troubled defensively for the whole game and whilst some will argue that it was because we played a wounded animal in Sunderland, that sometimes works against you, as the opponents play with a point to prove. Thankfully from this Gooners perspective, the Black Cats never really showed any of that potential threat that I thought we’d come up against.
Which is just as well really, because our free-flowing football has yet to completely return, based on yesterday’s performance. Passing still went awry, we were still very static and laboured at times, and you can tell that this is an Arsenal team that is struggling to find confidence right now. But it’s a bit of a Catch 22 situation with confidence, because you only get it by winning games, so if winning games requires confidence, perhaps we should just be happy that we’ve managed back-to-back victories and a win in a weeks time against Burnley will see us looking like we’ve put together a bit of a streak to take into the rest of the season.
Some words on individual performances. I thought Monreal and Chambers had a good game, although both were relatively untroubled by a relatively toothless Sunderland side, so perhaps sterner tests are to come. In midfield I though Flamini played well and, one two-footed challenge aside (he does like to throw himself in to those), he was vastly improved in his performance compared to a few weeks ago.
Santi Cazorla didn’t have one of his best games. He’s quite good at pretending to be a rugby kicker, because he does like a skied ball high above the goalposts. He had a few really good chances yesterday and I’m sure he’ll be frustrated at himself for not at least working the ‘keeper.
Up top we had the effervescent Alexis, who’s 10 out of 10 performance I suspect might just become a more regular appearance as he gets to know his teammates each week. What a player we have with him. His tireless running even made me feel fatigued just watching him. He’s a star in the making and his energy does, I think, also rub off on other players. There were times yesterday where I saw Santi running down one of the centre halves after Mannone had distributed a short pass out wide to build from the back, to which I could only muse to myself that it was the infectious effort of Welbeck and Alexis rubbing off on our diminutive Spaniard.
Welbeck was quiet and The Ox showed patches of good play, but he was still a bit loose in some of his passing and with Walcott approaching first team fitness, he will be looking at his place in the team and wondering how long he has in the team. A front three of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott is a mouth-watering prospect, so let’s hope we see a glimpse of that next weekend.
Another injury, this time to Gibbs, prevented the day from being an overall success and you wonder when we’re going to catch a break. Arsène was obviously non-committal on how bad the injury was, but we’ve seen that kind of limping off all too often with Arsenal players, so I’m fully expecting to hear during the week that we have a three of our first choice back four out until after the international break in a few weeks time. It does feel like we’re cursed at the moment, but it’s exacerbated by our own making, of which I’m bored myself of talking about it, so I’ll move swiftly on.
So what did we ultimately learn from yesterday? Well, I suppose firstly it’s that we’re still not at our best and there should be more we can expect from Arsenal. But it feels like we’re underway in the league now and so what we’ll all be hoping to see in the coming months is a series of wins that puts us in contention for those top four spots.
See you tomorrow.