Saturday, February 18, 2012

Arsenal's Final Hope of Silverware Is Gone: Sunderland 2 - Arsenal 0

This was another gut test for the Gunners and, once again, they failed it. All that's left for Arsenal's season now is the fading hope of securing the fourth and final Champion's League qualifying spot. Based on the two performances this week, and most of the others since the start of 2012, no one should bet on them to accomplish it.

With today's loss at the Stadium of Light in the FA Cup, Arsenal secured a seventh season in a row with no silverware. After the midweek debacle in Milan, which left the Gunners with virtually no chance of going through to the next round of the Champion's League, and bereft of confidence, they had to return to the Stadium of Light to face a very tough Sunderland side for the second time in a week. Last Saturday, Arsenal came back from 1-0 deficit in a League tie to win 2-1. Today, they showed no such resiliency.

The Gunners started at a defensive disadvantage. Per Mertesacker is out for the rest of the season, after suffering injury in last week's match; and Laurent Koscielny was injured in midweek CL match. So, the Gunners started with a central defensive pairing of Thomas Vermaelen and the ever dubious Johan Djourou. Then, only seven minutes into his return from a hamstring injury, fullback Fracois Cocquelin suffered a relapse, and had to be replaced by the ever-slow Sebastian Squillace, who slotted in alongside Djourou, while Vermaelen moved out to take Cocquelin's position. Thus, Arsenal played the entire match with their absolute last choice central defensive pairing - a pair that would struggle to start for any team in the Championship, let alone the Premier League.

Arsenal's defensive frailty was only partially offset at the offensive end of the pitch by the return of Gervinho from the just-completed African Cup of Nations; he replaced the inconsistent Theo Walcott, and, together with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Robin van Persie, created a relatively potent offensive threat. But Sunderland's defense was more than equal to that threat.

Sunderland took the lead toward the end of the first half on a set play. A block cross fell to Kieran Richardson who volleyed hard back into the area, where it struck the hapless Squillace's arm and deflected into the Arsenal net past backup goalie Lukasz Fabianski. They doubled their lead in the last quarter of the match, after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made the mistake of trying to dribble his way out of a tight spot, surrounded by three Sunderland defenders, who got the ball from him and started a fast counterattack. To his credit, Oxlade-Chamberlain ran all the way back 70 yards to try and keep the ball out of his goal, only to bundle the ball across the line after it deflected off the post.

It's hard to pick out any players in the horrific blue away jerseys that played particularly well today. Alex Song stands out, perhaps, as the only Arsenal player who equaled the toughness of the entire Sunderland squad. Any neutral fan who watched today's match and last week's match between the two clubs would have every reason to conclude that Sunderland are the better side.

One question for Arsene Wenger: How are you possibly going to convince Robin van Persie to stay put when (a) there is so much rebuilding to be done and (b) you fail to recognize how much rebuilding there is to be done?

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