Monday, February 20, 2012

Sunderland 2 Arsenal 0 (FA Cup 5th Round)

First of all, we didn't post our view on Arsenal's 4-0 defeat to AC Milan, simply because I missed the game. After what I have heard and read, I couldn't bring myself to watch the repeat on TV or the match video on Arsenal Player. However, our aim is to post as many match reviews as possible, no matter how badly we have played. Especially when the world looks grim and cruel for the Gooners, we would like to present more positive points of view for them as an official Arsenal Supporters Club.

The starting XI were just as we predicted. This game had a much more significance than just a FA Cup tie. It was to show how Arsenal would respond to their poor display and the massive disappointment of Wednesday night and to forebode how the rest of their season would pan out. Arsene Wenger fielded his strong side against Sunderland, who proved a week ago that they were a difficult side to beat. RVP led the line, with Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks. Ramsey, Arteta and Song consisted of the midfield. Vermaelen and Djourou formed the central defensive partnership. Personally, I don't rate Djourou, but we had no choice after Mertesacker and Koscielny sustained injuries. Fit-again Sagna took his familiar right-back position. The question was whether Gibbs, who played his first game since October, would play again, but he wasn't even on the bench (I haven't found out the reason yet). Instead, Coquelin started as the left-back.

We were unlucky to concede two goals, one with a deflection and an own goal, and to lose as many as three players to injury in the same game. Coquelin's injury so early affected Arsenal's game as he started the game brightly. Also, his withdrawal meant the introduction of dreaded Squillaci. However, we cannot blame the luck alone. Our performance was far from the best. Last week at the same venue against the same side, we came from behind to win 2-1. It wasn't our best game, but we showed real urgency in the last 20 minutes, which eventually earned the victory. In contrast to that, the second half of this game was flat. Arsenal played with no urgency as if they had been winning 4-0. The last kick of the game, a back pass to our keeper, epitomised the lack of urgency and the desire to win, as well as the team's cluelessness. In the post-match interview, Wenger attributed the poor performance in the second half to the tough schedule and its resultant heavy legs, but surely the players could have done better than that if they were desperate to win silverware.

Obviously, we were all disappointed and disgusted with another poor display from our players. One of the members argued that we needed changes in system and style. The argument has been cropping up from time to time for some time. We need quicker and more direct attacking. Also, the current 4-3-3 system was introduced in an attempt to make most of Fabregas' ability. The system allowed Fabregas to initiate attacking movements deep on the pitch and finish them in the box. I don't see the reason why we should stick to this system now Fabregas has gone.

Interestingly, Arsene Wenger seemed to have deployed the 4-4-2 formation in this game with the introduction of Walcott, who took up a forward position with RVP dropping behind him. It might have worked if Henry had played in place of Walcott. Another repeated criticism against Wenger has been the lack of a plan B. He has never changed his side's game according to the condition of the pitch or the opposition's style.

Martin O'Neill said two defeats do not make a crisis. How many time this season have we seen a headline, "Crisis, what crisis?", after Arsenal had suffered blows. I still believe that Arsene Wenger will turn the things around as he has done several times this season, most notably at the beginning of the season. Having the hope of winning any silverware dashed within a week is heartbreaking, but our top-priority of this season has always been to finish top four. Remember where we are now after the last week's results. We are still in the driving seat in the race for a Champions League spot. We cannot deny that there are many problems to be addressed to, but most of them are long-term issues and cannot be rectified until the close season.

The good thing about this game was at least we have avoided a replay, which could have been a disaster as it was scheduled to be played only five days before Tottenham match. The exits from the FA Cup and Champions League competitions mean there will be no fixture congestion for the rest of the season. This should protect our key players from injuries. Koscielny is supposed to be back this weekend. Carl Jenkinson will start full training today. Jack Wilshere could be back in a month, while Andre Santos is expected to be back in March (he's already back in London, reunited with the rest of the squad).

Good news this weekend came from outside Arsenal. Ryo scored his first goal for Bolton in the FA Cup tie against Millwall. Owen Coyle assured earlier this month that his January loan-signing would be ready for the top-flight football next season to get straight into Arsenal first-team. This looks extremely likely.

Player ratings (Once again, we don't do 1s and 2s.)

Fabianski: 5
As Sunderland registered only 1 shot on target, he didn't have much to do. Could he have done better for Sunderland's second goal?

Sagna: 4
Poor game by a usually consistent player.

Djourou: 3
He was lucky to stay on the pitch for that two-footed tackle. He was booked for his crude challenge, needless to point out that AC Milan's fourth goal was the result of his clumsy challenge. Although he was our best defender last season until he sustained a dislocated shoulder in the FA Cup tie against Manchester United, since his comeback, his defending was calamitous. We think he is not up to Arsenal standards. A week or so ago, Sky Sports reported that he was set to sign a long-term contract with Arsenal. Hope Arsenal will give it second thoughts.

Vermaelen: 6
Started as the centre-back and moved to the left-back following the injury to Coquelin. Although his header went straight into Mignolet's hands, at least he showed some willingness to get a goal.

Coquelin: N/A
He only played 10 minutes before he seemed to have pulled a hamstring, which is a shame as his emergence as a versatile first-teamer has been one of a few bright spots in this disappointing season.

Ramsey: 4
Struggled after he suffered a knock early in the game and was replaced by Rosicky in the 58th minute. His progress in this season has been agonizingly slow.

Arteta: 6
His free-kick missed the target narrowly. Although he had some wild shots as well, his free-kicks were better than before.

Song: 6
He made a superb pass to unleash van Persie, which resulted in Arsenal's unsuccessful penalty claim. After Squillaci was replaced, he took a central defensive role and did relatively well compared with other players.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 5
It was unfortunate to put the ball in his own net inadvertently, but it started from him being robbed of the ball. Again, he was not very effective against stubborn Sunderland defence. Hope his confidence didn't suffer from this game as he is a bright future for us. I was surprised to see him come second with 16% of total votes for the Man of the Match on site, despite his own goal. Incidentally, Alex Song was selected as the Man of the Match with 19%, including my vote.

Gervinho: 6
Made a couple of good runs in the first half and had a shot, which forced a good save from Mignolet. Faded badly in the second half.

van Persie: 6
Had a relatively quiet game.


Squillaci: 3
Why is he still with us? Came on in the 10th minute to replace injured Coquelin. His defending didn't look convincing at all. Sunderland's first goal took a deflection on him. Got injured and replaced by Walcott.

Rosicky: 4
58th minute-substitute for injured Ramsey. Did not make an impact.

Walcott: 3
Came off the bench to replace Squillaci in the 58th minute. Had a good chance, which was ruled out as an off-side before he tried to make a shot.


Howard Webb: 4
For the decision not to give a penalty in favour of Arsenal, there seem to be mixed views. says "Replays suggested John O'Shea had got his toe to the ball before he brought down the Dutch striker", while Sky Sports reports "the striker certainly had a case with the Irishman getting no more than the faintest of touches on the ball." We would not go further on this issue, but the referee should have done more to protect Arsenal players in the early stage. A yellow card or two should have stopped Sunderland players blocking their opponents blatantly.

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