After waiting two long weeks for another interminably boring international break to finish, Arsenal's return to Premier League action saw them disappointingly slump to defeat at Sunderland. It was the first time this season that the Gunners failed to find the net and their on-going struggle in keeping clean sheets meant that a 70th minute Darren Bent goal was enough to settle the match.
It was a scrappy game with neither side creating much in the way of chances. Arsene Wenger's men started purposefully enough but never quite managed to find the penetration and the cutting edge to break down a Sunderland team who were always going to be a tough proposition on their own ground. As the game wore on, the Blackcats energy and endeavour prevented the Gunners from getting a grip on the match and when Bent seized on little more than a half chance there was no way back for the visitors.
In truth, Arsenal looked well under par yesterday. Cesc Fabregas, in particular, failed to sparkle and, as is so often the case, when he has a flat game so does the rest of the team. Arsene Wenger put forward the international break as being a possible reason for the lacklustre display. It must be hard when you only effectively have 24 hours to prepare players, both physically and mentally, when they have been away for a couple of weeks but this looks less of a reason and more of an excuse when you consider that both Chelsea and Manchester United were able to win convincingly yesterday. Admittedly, they both had home games and, on current form, Sunderland were tougher opposition than Wolves or Everton but if Arsenal are to prove themselves as genuine contenders, they have to find the resources to get results at tricky away grounds whatever the circumstances.
Others will point to the injury to Robin Van Persie as being a severe blow. It is, but, from experience, we also know that the Dutchman is incapable of getting through a season without a lay-off of at least a couple of months. As infuriating as it is that he was injured in an international friendly, it is almost as if we have to budget for him being out for at least a quarter of a season, every season. There have been more than a few smirks that he took himself off to Croatia to have horse placenta massaged into his ankle before returning to London. It seems faintly amusing that the veterinary treatment of most equine injuries seems to usually be short, sharp and terminal and yet this animal is supposedly providing the remedy for a footballer’s malady. One can’t help thinking that if Van Persie had been a horse, he would have been shot a long time ago.
The real problem with Van Persie being out is the fact that Nicklas Bendtner is out too following his groin surgery. This does leave Arsene Wenger with few differing options up front. Eduardo, Arshavin, Walcott and Vela don’t offer much variation from one another and all of them lack the height and physical presence to truly lead the line. In mitigation for this, at least the Gunners have not put an over-reliance on Van Persie for goals so far this season as this term’s tally has been shared well around the team.
No, injuries and the international break are not really good enough excuses for yesterday’s defeat. The bottom line is that it was an unfocussed and jaded Arsenal performance and Sunderland possibly wanted it more - and it is that fact that makes it a difficult result to swallow. These are the sorts of matches where titles are really won and lost (as Liverpool found out to their cost last season) and the Gunners do need to make themselves far more effective when going to awkward away grounds if they are still to be in with a shout come next May.
Yesterday’s defeat also now ratchets up the pressure for next Sunday’s meeting with Chelsea at Ashburton Grove, which is now looking like a "must win" encounter. The Gunners trail the Blues by eight points but with a game in hand and, certainly, a defeat would deal a very heavy blow to Arsenal’s title aspirations.
Before then though, Standard Liege visit the Grove on Tuesday and, hopefully, yesterday’s disappointment can be washed away with a convincing home display that will see the team through to the knockout stages of the Champions League as group winners. It is vital that the players get themselves back on track and regain their focus before Sunday’s potentially pivotal showdown with their West London rivals.