IT is hardly a coincidence that Sunderland’s penultimate game of the season felt like an FA Cup third-round tie when a plucky lower-league side journey to the Emirates and mount a spirited rear-guard action, only to eventually succumb to an all-too-predictable defeat. Next season, that is exactly what this game might be.
Sunderland and Arsenal are heading in different directions; the former to the Championship, the latter for a final-day face-off to see if they can maintain their proud record of consistently qualifying for the Champions League. Goodness knows when they will share a pitch in a league game again.
With a trip to Chelsea to come on Sunday, the Black Cats could hardly have wished for a more challenging way to say goodbye to the top-flight. They were beaten last night, but at least they were able to leave with a semblance of pride intact. One imagines that will be the best they can hope for again at the weekend.
That they contained Arsenal for 73 minutes was due mainly to Jordan Pickford’s excellence in goal, although the players in front of him also deserve credit for rediscovering some of the professional pride that went so badly missing as they were beaten by Swansea last weekend.
Alexis Sanchez’s late double condemned them to a 25th league defeat of a thoroughly demoralising season, and means they are now guaranteed to finish at the foot of the table. Arsenal’s hopes of a top-four finish remain alive, although they are reliant on either Manchester City or Liverpool dropping points on the final day of the season.
Sunderland’s worries are rather more severe, and while last night’s game was an improvement on many of the Black Cats’ displays over the course of the campaign, it still highlighted some of the deficiencies that have proved so damaging. To put it succinctly, this group of players have simply not been good enough.
It remains to be seen how many members of last night’s side are still present when the new Championship season begins in August, but if David Moyes remains in place and has his way, the changes will be wide-reaching.
Jermain Defoe will definitely be off, and no Sunderland supporter will begrudge Pickford the opportunity to join him through the exit door. John O’Shea and Seb Larsson are out of contract, Javier Manquillo is on loan from Atletico Madrid, and both Lamine Kone and Fabio Borini have been angling for a move for the vast majority of the season. Throw in the likes of Joleon Lescott and Adnan Januzaj, who were on the bench but do not have a future on Wearside, and the scale of the summer rebuilding job becomes clear.
Oh to be Arsenal, with their incessant moaning about potentially missing out on the Champions League. The ‘Wenger Out’ placards appear to have been put away for the summer, but the thousands of empty seats at the Emirates reflected the ongoing civil war that rages over the Arsenal boss’ future. Imagine what would happen if Arsenal’s supporters ever had to experience what their fellow fans on Wearside are going through.
Arsenal went into last night’s game knowing they had to win to keep any realistic hopes of a top-four finish alive, so it was hardly a surprise that they dominated from the outset. What was rather more surprising was that they encountered some spirited Sunderland resistance that stopped them in their tracks.
True, there were moments in the first half, with Sanchez and Mezut Ozil buzzing in front of their opponents’ back four, when Arsenal looked like running riot. But thanks to some unexpectedly committed defending, and the rather easier to anticipate excellence of Pickford, Sunderland’s previously leaky defence held firm.
Arsenal had the ball in the net as early as the eighth minute, but Sanchez’s long-range effort was rightly disallowed after it took a huge deflection off Olivier Giroud’s arm. Beyond that, the hosts’ first-half attacks tended to falter without really troubling the Black Cats’ five-man defence, with Kone proving especially durable as he stationed himself on the edge of his own box.
Pickford made an excellent tenth-minute save to deny Giroud, and was called into action again on the stroke of half-time as he turned Aaron Ramsey’s first-time volley around the post. Hector Bellerin should have done better with an effort he flashed into the side-netting after breaking into the right-hand side of the box, but for all that they dominated possession, a lacklustre Arsenal were lacking a spark.
Sunderland’s attacking was understandably limited, although it would be wrong to characterise the first half as entirely one-way traffic. With Borini and Didier Ndong displaying some welcome attacking energy, the visitors enjoyed some joy when they targeted Rob Holding in the Arsenal defence, and Petr Cech was called into action on two separate occasions before the interval.
The Arsenal goalkeeper kept out Ndong’s near-post effort after the midfielder played a neat one-two with Defoe, and produced an even better stop to deny Defoe three minutes later as Sunderland’s leading goalscorer fired in an angled strike from the left-hand side of the area.
Cech’s most impressive save came two minutes after the interval, even if it ultimately cost his side a free-kick on the goalline. Nacho Monreal’s errant back-pass was heading in until Cech scrambled across his goalline to claw the ball to safety, and while Sunderland were awarded an indirect free-kick five yards from goal, Larsson’s scooped delivery came to nothing.
The incident underlined Arsenal’s skittishness though, and with the Black Cats continuing to commit plenty of players forward, the hosts almost fell behind to Billy Jones.
The defender opened his account for the season with a header at Hull, but was unable to repeat the trick as he fell on the ball when attempting to convert Larsson’s free-kick with a diving header.
Pickford saved from Ozil shortly after, but with Lee Cattermole performing tackling heroics on the edge of his own area, the hosts grew increasingly frustrated.
Could Sunderland hold out to secure one of their best results of the season? Predictably, the answer was no, and even more predictably, they were undone by some lazy defending.
Borini was the player at fault, with the Italian allowing Ozil to run off him as he galloped on to Granit Xhaka’s through ball down the left-hand side. Ozil squared the ball across the area, and with Sunderland’s defence on the back foot for almost the first time all night, Sanchez was left with the simple task of side-footing home. Once again, the Chilean had come to Arsenal’s rescue.
Pickford was salvaging Sunderland shortly after, getting down superbly to palm away Xhaka’s low shot, and was at it again shortly after as he turned substitute Alex Iwobi’s low shot around the post.
Once again, the Washington-born goalkeeper was acting as a one-man defence, but even he was powerless to prevent Arsenal doubling their lead with nine minutes left. He tried his best, keeping out Giroud’s close-range header, but Sanchez was on hand to casually convert the rebound.