It was clear to all outside the dressing room that we would struggle today when the team selection was announced. I can understand a manager having a favoured system, and trying, generally, to stick to it. I struggle a little when that system is one that no other team in the Premiership plays, and which doesn’t suit our players – exposing as it does our weakest area.
When it comes to trying to take on Arsenal, with a midfield of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Matthieu Flamini, and Theo Walcott, equipped with only Ki Sung-Yeung and David Vaughan, I think that the borderline between stubbornness and stupidity has been crossed. Why Vaughan? Surely in a two man midfield, even having made the mistaken choice to play that way, Vaughan should be behind Cabral, Craig Gardner, and Sebastian Larsson (not to mention the much missed Alfred N’Diaye).
As a result, it was hardly surprising that the first half resembled a training drill for Arsenal, where they would play the ball sideways in the area they like best (an imaginary line about 30 yards from goal) until they chose the best moment to attack. Our style under Di Canio is so rigid, so static, and so formulaic, that whereas Arsenal were a joy to watch – fast, fluid, skilful, and inventive -we leave huge gaps all over the pitch, with no links between the different areas of the pitch. How many times do our full backs link up effectively with our wingers (making playing with inverted wingers pointless)? How often was there a midfielder protecting the back four? When were our strikers working with each other – or dropping deep or wide (an essential pre-requisite of making 4-4-2 effective)?
Both of Arsenal’s first and third goals came because they easily exploited the huge space between Ondrej Celustka and Modibo Diakité. The first came when Ozil created a goal within his first ten minutes in English football, the third when our defence was so static that many in the Stadium, myself included, felt it must have been offside (it wasn’t).
Of course there was plenty of incident in between those moments. Arsenal dominated the first half, the only surprise being they didn’t score more, though that largely thanks to Westwood, whose performance was a significant plus.
We desperately needed a spark and got one when the hapless Vaughan was replaced by Gardner at half-time, having exhausted his supply of 10 yard backward passes and strange sideways twirls. Gardner has many limitations, but he does at least appear to be a leader of men on occasion, and in a side whose lack of leaders today is shown by the fact that Adam Johnson captained the side, that was crucial. An early goal in the second half came when Johnson won a penalty which Gardner converted. That promising 30 minutes at the beginning of the second half showed both excellent determination and spirit from the players, and I thought the crowd, particularly the South Stand, were tremendous in their response - sensing that, though outplayed for much of the game, we were giving it a go.
Even after the outstanding Ramsey’s superb volley from a cross on the overlap, we didn’t give up and suddenly the game was shaping up to be a cracker. However, Martin Atkinson – the referee who infamously gave Chelsea a ‘ghost goal’ in an FA Cup semi-final – intervened to save Arsenal. First, he made a mistake in not playing an advantage when Altidore was through on goal, while giving Bacary Sagna a piggy back. Then, when Altidore ‘scored’, Atkinson not only awarded us a free kick but, incredibly, failed to send Sagna off - can there be more conclusive proof that Altidore was in a scoring position than the fact that he did, indeed, score?! This was the final pivotal moment in the match.
So, a glimmer of hope for Sunderland arising from the second half display. Hopefully we can travel to what is now a huge match at West Brom next week (being followed, as it is, by home encounters with Liverpool and Manchester United), without all confidence having completely drained from the team. The crowd’s excellent (and, given the first half’s abject performance, very patient) support has a lot to do with that.
Before the match, I was of the view that our only hope was to ditch 4-2-4. Nothing I saw today changed my mind – quite the opposite. I don’t think Di Canio will ditch it though, so that being the case, unless we start selecting the best players, showing far more imagination and start to develop the ability to play between the lines, rather than as if we were playing table football, our predicament will soon become a crisis.
Keiren Westwood – 8 (MAN OF THE MATCH)
Comfortably man of the match, Westwood put in his most convincing display of the season, showing his ability as a shot stopper to keep us in it in the first half. No chance with the goals.
Ondrej Celustka – 5
Celustka looks like a centre back playing at right back. Always willing, but even when he was making the right decisions, he didn’t always have the ability to execute them. Two goals came via the gap between him and Diakite.
Modibo Diakité – 7
Solid enough in defence (the problems were what was happening 10 yards in front of him), and unlucky on two occasions not to score from a set piece (including where he headed against the bar).
Valentin Roberge – 6
No costly errors this time, but nor was there as much evidence of his ability to play it from the back as against Fulham.
Jack Colback – 6
Worked hard defensively and now looking like an accomplished left back even against the likes of Walcott. Some crucial defensive interventions, but little going forward.
Ki Sung-Yeung – 7
Confirmation on his debut performance of what Swansea and Celtic fans said about him – a good footballer, an excellent passer, and a dreadful tackler. A useful addition. Covered the ground well in difficult circumstances.
David Vaughan – 4
Why did he play? Resorted to standing watching Ki, forlornly chasing five Arsenal midfielders, running sideways, and making backward passes.
Adam Johnson – 6
Looked like our best hope while we were on top in the second half – and won a penalty – but was anonymous for the other 60 minutes.
Charis Mavrias – 7
I think this lad looks to have something about him. Hard-working, positive, and as likely as anyone in the side to create anything.
Steven Fletcher – 6
Great to see him back. One player who did not look out of place playing against a team of Arsenal’s class, albeit clearly not match fit. The 60 minutes will do him good, though – we need him.
Jozy Altidore – 6
As ever, his workrate couldn’t be faulted, and but for abysmal refereeing, would have scored. However, his control and distribution, for a target man, is still too inconsistent.
Craig Gardner – 7
Crucial in bringing about the second half fightback. Disappointing free kicks.
Fabio Borini – 5
Very anonymous, but playing on the left wing, and the game was lost 5 minutes after he came on.
Connor Wickham - 6
Worked hard and looked up for it.