There was a point yesterday – just before Sunderland scored their freak goal – when I was thinking: we need to change this game from the bench, but who can we bring on? We have no quality on the bench!
All it took was one Ramsey pot shot, one sublime cross from Arshavin and one trademark Henry finish to prove that Arsène Wenger still knows what he’s doing.
All three had come on as substitutes and they undoubtedly secured the three points for us.
This was a very important win against an obdurate and well organised Sunderland who were the form team in the Premier League going into this fixture.
The performance was even better when you take into account the state of the pitch. It looked as if the Riders of Rohan had just charged over it (perhaps on their way to Stoke to find some Orcs).
We started with arguably our strongest available 11 (I say arguably because it’s a toss-up between Rosicky and Ramsey for the third midfield role) and right from the off we set a pattern that changed little throughout the game: we controlled the ball, Sunderland largely conceded the middle of the park and drew back to just outside their penalty area, we passed and probed but struggled to find a way through, Sunderland relied on occasional breaks and set pieces.
No doubt some will damn the team for our inability to conjure a way through the massed Black Cat ranks. Perhaps we missed a bit of Fabregas magic – expelliamus parkbussimus – but I prefer to credit the Sunderland defending.
They gave no space at all to Prince Robin, nor to our two wide men, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Every time any of those three got the ball there were at least two men on them.
Chances were few and far between, although Theo did manage to get away from his markers on one occasion and fire a low shot across goal, but it went past the far post.
Despite the lack of goal scoring opportunities our defence was looking solid (even from set pieces), while Song and Arteta were doing a great job of providing an extra shield in midfield and Tomas Rosicky was as busy as he was against Blackburn last weekend.
The one big scare was when Mertesacker slipped in the box while dealing with a speculative through ball.
For most players the ball would have bounced over their head and out for a goal kick, but for the BFG it arrived at chest height, so naturally he chested it down. But, as he did so, he caught his foot in one of the horse divots and stumbled.
The ball bounced up and onto his arm. It was certainly not deliberate and certainly not ‘hand to ball’ but you do see them given – particularly when the penalty would favour the home team. Full credit to the referee, Neil Swarbrick, for not being swayed by the Mackem hysteria.
By half time it was pretty obvious that this was going to be a tight affair and that one goal might nick it.
The second half started much the same as the first. Sunderland had a couple of decent low shots from around the edge of our area. Szczensy did well to save both (one down to his left, then a more difficult one down to his right that hit a mole hill just in front of him).
It was a credit to the lad that he was sharp and focused when called into action, having had little to do up to that point.
Up front we were still probing with all the effectiveness of a blind gynaecologist. Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain were becoming even more peripheral than they had been in the first half, and, on 66 minutes, Arsene decided to make a change, bringing off Oxo for Thierry Henry.
Within four minutes we were behind. A rare Sunderland attack was tidied up down our right flank with Sagna shepherding the ball back to Mertesacker, who was running towards his own goal and had the simple task of rolling the ball back to Szczesny or across the park to the unmarked Koscielny.
Unfortunately the BFG injured his ankle as he turned and went down as if shot.
McClean, for Sunderland, showed brightness to keep on running past the fallen German before shooting low across Szczensy into the far corner of the net. I have seen comments questioning whether Chezzer might have done better, but the shot was hit very hard and from close range. Not his fault.
However, it was a freak goal and I was cursing our terrible luck. From a completely innocuous situation, suddenly, we’re a goal down. I really do think it’s time Arsene started going to church.
Given how tight the Sunderland defence was, I was doubtful as to whether we could rescue a point, let alone all three.
Ramsey came on for Mertesacker (let’s wish him well and hope for a speedy recovery), with Song dropping back into the centre of defence. And it didn’t take long for young Aaron to make a mark. Just three minutes after the re-start Arteta had a shot from outside the area blocked, the ball cannoned to Ramsey and his low first time shot went in off both posts. Ramsey has his critics, but he never hides and never stops taking shots at goal. It was always only a matter of time before his luck turned for the better.
So, one-all with 15 minutes to go. Would we sit back or push on for all three?
This is Arsenal – of course we would push on for all three. Arshavin came on for Walcott on 86 and immediately looked more dangerous than had either Theo or Oxo (perhaps because the Mackems were tiring after there exertions all afternoon and following their extra time FA cup win on Wednesday night).
As the clock passed the 90 minute mark, our pocket Russian found himself on our left wing with two Sunderland defenders in front of him. He jinked one way then the other, then dinked in a beautiful cross with his right boot. Jinky-dinky loveliness.
And who was there to meet it in the six yard box? Cometh the hour, cometh the legend.
Thierry Henry, who up til that point had had very little influence in the game, ghosted between the Sunderland centre backs to volley the ball past Mignolet in the Black Cats goal.
You can take away the speed, you can take away the stamina, you can take away some of the strength, but you can’t take away the class. A striker’s goal from a born winner. The celebrations among the Arsenal players were a joy to watch. Henry clearly means a lot to these lads, and they to him.
We never looked in trouble after that and at the end it was three points well earned and well deserved.
Szczesny: Not too much to do but made two very good saves in the second half. 7.5
Sagna: Great to have him back. Unflappable and unbeatable at the back, and contributed a lot going forward. 8.5
Koscielny: He got caught in possession a couple of times but was generally the strong, reliable defender we have come to know and love. 7.5
Mertesacker: Was having a superb game until his unfortunate injury. We need him back quickly because, in my opinion at least, our strongest pairing at the back will be the BFG with one of Koscielny and Vermaelen. 8.5
Vermaelen: Didn’t put a foot wrong but is not able to support the attack as well as an orthodox left back would. 8
Arteta: Another fine game, controlling the ball from deep, covering our defence and instigating forward moves. He is our metronome. 8
Song: A real warrior’s performance from Alex. He misplaced a few through balls when looking for defence-splitters, but after his success against Blackburn last week you can’t blame him for trying. And his all round work breaking up Sunderland moves and powering us forward was exemplary. Can’t be blamed at all for Sunderland’s goal (sorry Peaches). 8.5
Rosicky: Finding some form at last. Was very combative, if a little wasteful with his passing at times. 7
Oxlade-Chamberlain: It’s not going to be a fairy tale every week at this stage of his career. Had a couple of decent runs but was effectively marked out of the game. 6
Walcott: He saw more of the ball than Oxo but did little with it. Games like this, with banked lines of defenders sitting deep, are not the forum for him to shine. 6
Robin van Persie: Didn’t get much of a look-in. One second half header could have been dangerous but looped straight into Mignolet’s arms. Nevertheless, the fact that he had two or three players marking him at all times undoubtedly helped other players to find space at times. 7
Henry: Did nothing for 25 minutes then scored the winning goal. I’m making him man of the match partly for sentimental reasons and partly because he made the most valuable single contribution on the day. 9 MoTM
Ramsey: A brilliant cameo from Aaron. He was everywhere in his 22 minutes and scored the goal that brought us back into the game. The many critics will, in time, have enough egg on their face to make an omelet the size of Wales. 8
Arshavin: Little Andrei looked energetic and direct when he came on and provided a beautiful cross for Thierry’s winner. Perhaps he has reached rock bottom (in the Man Utd game) and is coming out the other side. I really hope so. 8