Why were Arsenal so lacklustre on crucial day in the title race?
Gunners fire blanks against Black Cats and fail to put pressure on Manchester United
Arsenal know they missed a golden opportunity to take control of the title race after being held to a goalless draw by stubborn Sunderland at the Emirates.
The Gunners could not break down the Black Cats despite dominating for long periods of the game, and had to settle for a point and closing the gap to three behind leaders Manchester United, who travel to Liverpool on Sunday.
United can extend their advantage to six points if they win at Anfield, but Arsenal would still have a game in hand and, crucially, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have to come to the Emirates on May 1.
However this was a game that felt like a must-win for Wenger’s side, and failing to do so not only gives United breathing space, but also opens the door for third-placed Chelsea who travel to Blackpool on Monday night.
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The draw also means the Gunners will head into the pivotal week of their season - twin tests with Barcelona and Manchester United in an FA Cup quarter-final await – without the confidence boost of a victory.
At times the lack of energy and urgency in Arsenal’s play was mystifying, especially in a soporific first half, and while Wenger would later gnash his teeth over refereeing decisions, his side and his team selection were mainly at fault here.
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They did not have the attitude or the penetration to break down an organised but limited Sunderland side who arrived at the Emirates on the back of four straight defeats and without key players. They were there for the taking, and yet still Arsenal failed to seize the initiative.
But these are not easy times at the Emirates, and Wenger went into this game knowing he had to try and play his strongest side, while aware that risking some of his walking wounded could rule them out of the tumultuous week ahead.
In the end Wenger decided Laurent Koscielny was fit to start but, as expected, Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song were not although both are hopeful of starting in the Nou Camp on Tuesday night.
Samir Nasri captained the side and it was soon apparent he had a job on his hands to lift the tempo of a team who started in sloppy fashion.
Sunderland sensed their hosts were not quite at the races and pressed early on, although it was Arsenal who created the early openings as Nicklas Bendtner just failed to connect with an Andrey Arshavin cross, and then Nasri curled an effort straight into the hands of the Black Cats’ Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet.
At the other end Wojciech Szczesny, making his first appearance since the previous weekend’s Carling Cup debacle, was alert to repel a fierce effort from Stephane Sessegnon.
Arsenal were struggling to get anywhere near their best, with the central trio of Jack Wilshere, Denilson and Abou Diaby finding space a rare commodity in an overcrowded midfield. Wenger’s decision to play Wilshere in the attacking central role seemed to limit the teenager, with the bulk of possession falling to Denilson and Diaby, who were both starting to frustrate the Emirates crowd.
Nasri went on one mazy, surging run that almost culminated in an own goal from Phil Bardsley, but Sunderland were not having too many problems keeping Arsenal at arm’s length.
Bendtner, fresh from his FA Cup hat-trick earlier in the week, looked the best source of a breakthrough, and almost provided it before the break hitting a searing volley that was brilliantly finger-tipped over the bar by the impressive Mignolet.
But the half-time whistle sounded with a sense of nervous frustration growing amongst the Arsenal faithful and it did not abate in a second half that saw precious few chances created before Wenger was duty-bound to change something and brought on Marouane Chamakh for the disappointing Denilson.
It nearly paid dividends immediately as the Moroccan surged clear inside the Sunderland box and cut the ball back for Arshavin to blast a shot that would have beaten Mignolet had it not been straight at him.
Arsenal cranked up the intensity now and Wilshere was booked for dissent as the frustration started to reach the Gunners players.
Two chances in the space of three minutes then had supporters holding their heads in their hands. The first saw Nasri slam in a free-kick that was blocked by a strong hand from Mignolet.
Then Nasri turned provider, curling in a cross from the left flank which Chamakh rose to meet majestically only to crash a header against the crossbar.
Then came a moment that was to provide genuine controversy after the game, with Arshavin racing clear, skipping round Mignolet to score only to be hauled back by an offside flag. To the horror of Arsenal fans, and not for the first time this season, the decision was proved to be incorrect when witnessed again.
Rookie referee Anthony Taylor was starting to annoy both the crowd and Wenger with his decisions, constantly interrupting the flow of the game which was quite to Sunderland’s liking as they counted down the minutes to an unexpected point, and Koscielny and Nasri both saw their names taken.
With 15 minutes to go it was becoming desperate measures for Arsenal, with Wenger throwing on Tomas Rosicky for Diaby, who had endured another anonymous, timid display in midfield. Aaron Ramsey, sitting unused on the bench, would surely have been a more creative option.
Scoring seemed to be beyond Arsenal now and, ironically given how little attacking they had done in the second half, it was Sunderland who came closest to scoring when substitute Danny Welbeck’s shot was brilliantly turned aside by Szczesny. The Polish keeper is clearly made of the right stuff, and kept a third consecutive Premier League clean sheet.
But it was at the other end of the pitch where action was required, and despite a hectic finish that saw both Bendtner and Chamakh have headed chances, they could not find a way past Mignolet.
Arsenal must now sit and wait to see how United fare at Anfield, but the sense of a missed opportunity hung in the air as the 60,000 trooped home.
The Gunners do not face league action again until the trip to a resurgent West Bromwich Albion on March 19. By that time, all Arsenal followers are acutely aware, the league could be the only competition in which their side remain.
Man of the match: Jack Wilshere
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Denilson (Chamakh, 62), Diaby (Rosicky, 75), Wilshere, Nasri, Arshsvin, Bendtner. Subs not used: Almunia, Eboue, Gibbs, Ramsey, Squillaci.
Booked: Wilshere, Koscielny, Nasri.