What a difference a few weeks makes for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal! Many Gooners thought “Le Professeur” had lost the plot entirely. Especially after his disastrous substitution of Andrei Arshavin for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Manchester United Jan. 23 that resulted in a 2-1 defeat. And Arshavin’s miserable substitute performance in that game (following about a year of wretched form) convinced many that he would never again help Arsenal win an important game. But the Frenchman and the Russian turned the tables today. Arsenal came back from being down a goal at the 70th minute to win 2-1 in the end. Another French Arsenal legend – who is getting “legend-ier” by the game – also played his part with inspired perfection.
Here’s how it all played out: The first half was a snooze-fest. As usual, Arsenal controlled possession. But their slow tempo, lack of clinical precision and creativity, and what seemed to be a lack of fighting spirit meant that it was anybody’s game to win as the half ended nil-nil. Arsenal supporters have seen it all before in recent seasons, and none could have felt very confident at that point.
The second half was much better, as both teams played with more passion and intensity. Sunderland manager Martin O’Neal must have had recent nightmares involving a rampaging Ox stomping on his Black Cats, because his players looked intent on double-teaming Oxlade-Chamberlain at every opportunity. With the opposite winger, Theo Walcott, reverting to his customary sloppy and ineffective style, Robin van Persie was seeing little of the ball and chances were in short supply. Sunderland’s Craig Gardner was quite effective breaking up play in his deep midfield possession. He also hit two scary strikes from distance that required good saves from the Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesney.
As the half wore on, Wenger replaced the Ox with Thierry Henry, hoping the old master might add even more luster to his bronze statue by again conjuring some goalscoring magic. But things quickly turned pear-shaped for the Gunners. At the 70th minute, Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker injured himself and collapsed to the ground. This allowed the lively James McClean to cruise down the left channel and spank the ball from an acute angle past Szczesney and into the far corner.
It looked like a typical Arsenal losing effort — lots of possession, no finishing, with a defensive breakdown creating a late deficit against a weaker (on paper at least) team. Looks can be deceiving, though, in this strangest of seasons for the North Londoners. Wenger subbed on Aaron Ramsey for the ailing German. Within 5 minutes the score was leveled when Ramsey hit a clean, first-time shot that struck one upright and pinged across to the other before spinning into Sunderland’s goal.
Arsenal’s spirits were revived and they pressed for the winner. But Sunderland continued their stubborn, “park the bus” defensive style and a 1-1 finish seemed likely. Wenger seemed to replace one ineffective winger with another when he replaced Walcott with Arshavin late in the half, but the Russian must have eaten his Wheaties this morning. Or perhaps pure talent shone through. Whatever the cause, on the 90th minute, with two defenders in front of him, he launched a brilliant, looping cross to the onrushing Henry, who poked it past the helpless Simon Mignolet. It was Henry’s last Premier League game. And this match-winner, his 229th goal for his beloved Arsenal, was something out out of a Hollywood script.
Arsenal have a long way to go if they are to yet again secure a top-four finish, but today’s last-gasp winner might just prove a turning point, especially with Chelsea and Liverpool failing to gain points today. For the moment, Arsenal sit in that coveted fourth spot in the table. Lots of questions loom: Will the mysterious Arshavin again catch fire to boost the team’s stretch run? Will Mertesacker’s injury create more defensive woes for the Gunners? Will Henry’s imminent departure require Wenger to resort to desperate measures, such as allowing Park Chu-Young to actually play?! Stay tuned!