Sunderland 0 Arsenal 1
It was always going to take a performance this satisfying to bring me back to blogging.
The past four months have produced some highs but too many familiar lows as sparks of flair have been more than extinguished by errors and displays that were, frankly, depressing.
But yesterday was different. The team showed all of the character that has been missing since the heady opening few games of the campaign. Determination, stubbornness and genuinely good defending (and not a little creativity when required) are things that put this supporter, reared on George Graham’s Arsenal, in a happy place.
The word generally being used to describe Sagna’s performance was immense and it is spot on. Drafted in at last minute to centre back, he produced some majestic blocks, tackles and headers as Sunderland kept coming forwards. And when he wasn’t putting his body on the line, he was busy organising his defensive colleagues, pointing people to the right spot and helping Aaron Ramsey find his feet at right back.
It was great to see Sagna back to his best after a few weeks where he looked to have switched off. His contract discussions rumble on but if he shows more of the same kind of effort he’ll no doubt earn a new payday from us. It worked for Theo Walcott, after all.
The other defensive star was Szczesny. I thought he looked solid enough on crosses but he produced two, maybe three, match-winning saves. He was decisive enough to put off Fletcher in the one-on-one and then athletic enough to tip over the late header (from Graham?). Just like Sagna, it was pleasing to see him shine. He’s young to be relied on as a first team goalkeeper and you feel he needs days like yesterday to reassure himself – and maybe Wenger too – that he’s worthy of the position.
Elsewhere, Wilshere and Cazorla were again clearly on another level to everyone else on the pitch. At times I felt sorry for them seeing Giroud and Walcott fumble their way around or just not have the speed of thought to understand what tune the conductors were trying to play.
The biggest winner though was the team. Was it a real Arsenal team that gave away a winning position at home to Fulham? Or lost to fourth-tier (remember that, FOURTH tier) Bradford City? Or performed so meekly for much of the Chelsea and Man City defeats? Far more than 7-3s against Newcastle or 5-1s against West Ham it is victories like the one at the Stadium of Light that help to form a real team.
There has been so much player turnover in the past few years that the common bond that fixes everyone – teammates, partnerships and defensive and attacking units on the pitch, as well as supporters off it – has been missing. They and we haven’t been through enough ‘together’ to really get to know one another.
To illustrate the point, if you compare the squad fielded for the match closest to February 9 four years ago (Tottenham away, Feb 8, 2009), just one of our starting XI that day, Sagna, is still at the club. Of our subs, six remain, though two are on loan (Arshavin, Gibbs, Ramsey, Fabianski, Djourou, Bendtner). Contrast that with Man U, where six of their starting XI away at West Ham on the same day remain (Ferdinand, Vidic, Rafael, Carrick, Giggs, Scholes) and four of the seven subs still there with one on loan (Nani, Welbeck, Fletcher, Fabio). In total, ignoring injuries, five Arsenal players from that day could have been fielded yesterday compared to nine from Man U.
It takes time and victories like yesterday to build the sense of joint purpose which successful teams need. Over time they transform players from professionals who happen to play for Arsenal to Arsenal footballers who are linked to each other and with us, the poor souls who survived it all with them. Hopefully it marks the start of a new phase for this group – the same spirit will come in very useful over coming weeks and months.