I had a professor once tell me that his secret to grad school was to read the first and last paragraph of every chapter and if it was a chapter he thought was particularly important, he would read the first and last sentence of each paragraph in the chapter. It was the only way that he could handle the rigors of all the required readings while also maintaining a high alcohol to blood ratio. So if you’re in grad school, go ahead and skip to the last paragraph.
Now that those bores are gone off to let their hair down in their ivory towers, the rest of us can talk about a few things. First, let’s talk for a second about Bacary Sagna and Wojciech Szczesny.
There was a moment in the 85th minute where I thought, “by moving Sagna to center half, the good news is that Arsenal have the Sagna of old back, the bad news is that now Arsenal have a right back crisis.”
We’ve known it now for several years, Arsenal’s fullbacks have incredible demands put on them. They have to be one of the best passers on Arsenal, a team which already demands a high level and rate of passing, because they provide the only width on a team in which three center mids make vertical runs all day. And precisely because of that attacking system which turns players like Sagna and Gibbs into a fifth midfielder the Arsenal fullbacks are often pushed well up the field and subsequently exposed to runs behind and all other manner of problems.
A lot of folks were wringing their hands about “Sagna’s form” this season and tweeting about how they “wouldn’t shed a tear” if Sagna were to leave this Summer. That level of unwarranted vitriol kicked into overdrive when he gave an interview to the French press this week talking about Arsenal’s lack of positional discipline with his detractors calling it ironic that he would talk about positioning when he was the one caught out so often. Some folks went so far as to say that it looked like he didn’t care.
The reality is that the performance you saw from Sagna yesterday is the same type of warrior-like, full-blooded, steely game that he has been giving pretty much his entire Arsenal career. Moreover, he is hands down Arsenal’s best defender and has been for a number of years. He’s better in the air (at a mere 5’8″) than the 6’4″ Per Mertesacker and is one of the few players at Arsenal who actually knows how (and when!) to make a tackle.
Arsenal have made a number of defensive errors this season and Sagna has been one of the players who contributed to that ignominious record. I was one of the people who tipped Carl Jenkinson to take over for Sagna I have to admit that I was wrong on that account. I like Jenkinson, but almost as soon as Sagna returned you could see that Jenkinson still had much to learn. And on yesterday’s performances, with Sagna winning many plaudits and Carl seeing red, the gulf between them is stretched to a chasm. Sagna going to PSG would be a huge loss for Arsenal this summer.
Meanwhile, Szczesny is getting a lot of credit for making a couple of decent saves in the game but apart from a few good moments I felt like he was, overall, very shaky. One of the things that everyone praised Szcz for over the last two years was his “command of the area” but over the last few matches, Szczesny has looked anything but commanding.
Stoke’s “Hail Mary” offense is scary for the best of keepers and for one as young as Szczesny, who is exposed by a center back pairing that can’t win headers, Stoke is a daunting opponent indeed. Still, his attempted claims against Stoke made him look weak and ineffectual.
Against Sunderland he continued this recent form of flapping at high claims and I felt put undue pressure on his defense. Pressure that the defense didn’t need because Sunderland aren’t that much of a threat from the air. I don’t hate the kid or want to see him fired but it makes me wonder if there isn’t something physically wrong with Szczesny.
It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Szczesny is playing with a knock, I think Wenger is taking more and more chances with his players as the squad looks increasingly thinner. What, exactly, is happening with Arsenal’s squad is the mystery of the season. Djourou is loaned out at just the worst time of the season and now Santos has been send to Gremio for a year leaving Arsenal with a rather threadbare defensive unit.
I called for Wilshere to be rested before kickoff and judging by the fact that he was removed for an “injury” I don’t think that was a bad shout. Wenger admitted before the game that he is worried about Wilshere playing too much. He said something similar before Wilshere was injured two years ago.
Despite the injury scare, Wilshere was pivotal to Arsenal beating Sunderland yesterday. Not only did he record the “pre-assist” but he was a focal point for the Sunderland defense who were forced to close down on Jack all day. That opened space for his teammates. Cazorla, in fact, needs Jack next to him, the two make an excellent midfield pairing. I wonder if Cazorla wouldn’t have had his man-of-the-match performance if he had been the target of the Sunderland studs rather than Jack.
The difference between Jack’s pulsing forward play and the ball dawdling of Diaby is night and day. The second that Wilshere was off the pitch Arsenal stopped controlling possession and struggled going forward. So, I “get it’ that Wenger needs to use him so much. But yesterday’s match against Sunderland should be seen as a huge warning to the club; Jack can’t do it alone. He needs Arsenal to spend some of the money sitting in the bank to put players around Jack that can take some of the load off. I’m not worried as much about burnout this season, I’m worried about a Cesc-like burnout from the club and the club’s parsimonious policies.
Which brings me to my last point for the day: the League has a real problem with the referees. I have never seen a player as tough as Jack Wilshere. He is the kind of guy who likes to keep the ball, like all creative players he loves the ball. Those kinds of players are normally targeted by the players who hate creativity, the Lee Cattermoles of the world. The destroyers. But the kicking that Wilshere takes rises to a level I’m not sure I’ve seen before.
Wilshere is not just constantly targeted, he’s constantly targeted with obscene tackles like the one that Titus Bramble put in which caused Jack to jump 10′ in the air. Lee Cattermole kicked Wilshere and Ramsey multiple times and got away with it and the rest of the Sunderland midfield took turns getting away with kicks left and right.
Leaving aside the fouls that don’t make contact, it would be a start if referees in the Premier League could punish the fouls that do make contact. Fouls like this one:
This foul by Cattermole on Ramsey earned Cattermole a yellow and it was part of a starting 10 minutes by Sunderland in which they fouled the Arsenal players all over the pitch and got away with it time and again. Cattermole should have seen red probably twice in this game but again there were scenes of the referee and him shucking and jiving rather than the referee just sending him to an early bath. Meanwhile, if the Arsenal players got anywhere near the Sunderland boys the whistle went immediately and the cards were quick.
But in the end Arsenal did just enough to ensure the three points. Giroud and Cazorla both squandered golden chances on the counter attack as Sunderland decided to play football in the final 15 minutes and extended themselves to get an equalizer. Defensively, Ramsey was outstanding filling in for Carl Jenkinson at right back and as many of us have said here time and again, you have to love Ramsey’s willingness to do anything the boss asks. People often complain about players who don’t respect the badge, if you’re looking for one, look no further than Aaron Ramsey. And of course, Szczesny and Sagna combined to keep the clean sheet: Sagna heading away every Sunderland threat and Szczesny finally claiming some high balls, ending the game with a perfect claim with three Sunderland players surrounding him. It was a good result for Arsenal and fingers crossed that everyone comes through with no knocks and gets healthy for the FA Cup and Champions League games upcoming.
There was a lot of stuff you just missed in there my grad school friend. We proved definitively that Bacary Sagna should start at center back, that Wenger was foolish to play Wilshere, that Lee Cattermole is exactly that kind of player, and that Anthony Taylor made the kinds of decisions that cast a pall on the fundamental fairness of the Premier League. Or maybe we just talked about the game. Maybe you should read the whole article and find out?