Should we really be surprised that Thierry Henry signed off from the Premier League with a winning goal? He's done it so many times before, yet his injury winner at Sunderland had that something extra special about it. It wasn't that it was a wonder goal, it was just a poacher's goal in the six yard box, but the goal was as important as it was symbolic.
Forgetting that it was Henry who scored, the goal itself was vital in our fight for fourth. Just two and a half weeks ago, we were lamenting the state of the team after the 0-0 draw at Bolton. Now we're in the position we hope to occupy at the end of the season. With other results going our way, a draw would have felt like another missed opportunity. We also had to build on the 7-1 win, and a draw wouldn't have been good enough. Now, the fact we were ruthless against Blackburn is looking extremely handy, as we're currently only ahead of Chelsea in the table on goals scored.
Sunderland have been in great form since Martin O'Neill took over, and made themselves extremely hard to break down. It was cold, the pitch was bad, the hosts were organised; the list could go on of reasons as to why the match that was a prime candidate for dropping points. The game also came at the start of a massive week for our season, with AC Milan in the Champions League on Wednesday, and another trip to Sunderland in the FA Cup next Saturday. Suddenly the team are going into those matches off the back of two very different wins, but equally as important ones. The 2-1 win at Sunderland said more about how much we want to finish in the top four than the 7-1 did.
The way we conceded the goal was disappointing, but ultimately we can’t go throwing any blame around. It was a terrible bit of bad luck for Mertesacker to collapse injured when he did, allowing James McClean to score. It could have been as a result of the pitch, but the way he went down made it look quite serious. I’m a big fan of Mertesacker and think he has been good, even though he is still adapting to the Premier League. Hopefully the injury isn’t as bad as it looked.
We’re fortunate that Kieran Gibbs is returning from injury, so Thomas Vermaelen can slot back into the centre of defence alongside Koscielny. However it means we’re one injury away from potentially looking exposed in defence again. With big games coming up, the players returning from injury have to get back up to speed quickly.
Generally, we kept Sunderland at bay well until their goal. Wojciech Szczesny made a few important saves, showing that some of his slightly shaky moments in recent weeks are behind him. Otherwise, Sunderland didn’t commit too many players forward as they looked content to just watch us pass the ball in front of them. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain couldn’t reach the heights of his recent performances, while Theo Walcott was a bit wasteful in some promising positions. Arsene Wenger’s substitutions have been under the microscope since the Manchester United match, however all three of the players he introduced in the second had a massive impact on the game, and effectively won it for us. Wenger got it spot on.
When Mertesacker was stretchered off, it would have been easy to bring on Gibbs and move Vermaelen into the centre, but Ramsey was introduced instead. Within minutes of coming on, it was clear that he’d benefitted from a break from the team. I think he was on the end of some harsh, and often unfair, criticism during January, so I was really pleased to see him on the score sheet. There was some significant luck involved in his goal, with the ball hitting both posts, but with some of the bad luck he’s had in his young career, no-one can begrudge him a goal like that. It was also good to see someone shoot from the outside the box. With Sunderland sitting deeper and the space to slide a pass being limited, the shot from distance was a good option, and Ramsey’s shot was well hit given the bobbly pitch.
So onto the winning goal. Andrey Arshavin needs to have a good end to the season, he needs to make an impact. If he does what he did at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, his critics will be quiet. It was what makes Arshavin so infuriating. We all know he has a huge amount of talent, he just has to show it more often, and when it really matters. In injury time, he did show it when it really mattered. His cross from the left was perfect, it just needed someone perfect on the end to finish it.
Apart from Robin van Persie, I’m not sure if there is anyone else in world football I’d prefer to have on the end of a cross like that, than Thierry Henry. In all the minutes he’s been on the pitch in this loan spell, frankly, he hasn’t really done much; except for scoring three goals. Even at this stage of his career, that is what sets Henry apart from others. Even though he isn’t physically able to score the type of goals he used to, he is intelligent enough and clever enough to know where to be to score, and then stay calm when in that position. When Arshavin’s cross came in, it was no coincidence that Henry was between the two defenders, and then he opened his body up well and guided the ball in.
Honestly, I didn’t expect anything from this loan spell. Plus, as much as we Arsenal fans didn’t want to admit it, there was always that niggling fear that he might be terrible and score no goals. It wouldn’t have ruined his reputation or status at the club, but there would have been some disappointment and a tinge of sadness from fans. But why should we have doubted him? He is Thierry Henry. He has some much pride in his football, and even more pride when wearing the cannon on his chest, that he wouldn’t have allowed himself to let Arsenal down. He has enhanced his reputation, and his legend status at the club, and in the Premier League as a whole, has been assured. As long as the Premier League exists, people will talk about Thierry Henry, and he is 100% a Gooner.
His goals have been crucial. Leeds United was one of the most magical moments I’ve experienced in a football stadium, and it won us a match that we’d lacked a cutting edge in. The Blackburn goal was a bit scrappy, and was seemingly a bit meaningless, but now we’re level on goal difference with Chelsea, that could be vital by the end of the season. Also, in his last home match, the script writers weren’t going to let him not find the net. However he saved the most important goal for last, with the winner at Sunderland. Or was it his last goal? The San Siro awaits on Wednesday. Thierry has history there. You wouldn’t put it past him writing one last paragraph in his incredible Arsenal love story, the day after Valentines’ Day.
He has put a massive smile on the face of every Arsenal fan. Even if for fleeting moments, it’s occasionally felt like the good old days. From a playing point of view, it’ll be sad to see him go again later in the week. We’ll be back in a vulnerable position in the squad without reliable back up for Robin van Persie. However we need to be positive at the moment. Henry never truly left Arsenal, and he never will. I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar loan deal was done next season. The words don’t really exist to justify what Thierry Henry means to Arsenal fans, what Arsenal means to Thierry and what a legend he is. Thank you Thierry, you’re one of us, but you’re also an Arsenal fan that is one of the greatest players ever to have played in England. Thank you Arsene for signing him in the first place, and then for bringing him back.