The relief was writ large on the features of the goalscorer, Aaron Ramsey, but it was even larger across those of Arsène Wenger. When Ramsey’s injury-time clincher hit the net, the Arsenal manager pumped his fists before springing into a little jump and trotting around when he landed.
“I was very nervous today,” Wenger said, and it had shown. He protested furiously at the award of the Sunderland free-kick just before half-time which led to the Olivier Giroud own-goal equaliser, even though Laurent Koscielny’s tackle on Duncan Watmore had been grisly. Koscielny was booked. “I’ve been told I was wrong on that one,” Wenger said, sheepishly.
Wenger was worried about Sunderland’s threat on set pieces but he had other concerns – chiefly, finding a new balance, having “lost the core of the team in midfield”. Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin are long-term injury casualties. Wenger’s body language betrayed his anxiety throughout and it was a strange sort of atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium. Both Arsenal and the home crowd lacked intensity.
“Maybe Arsenal were a little bit edgy because they had not won in three league matches,” Sam Allardyce said. “They were jittery and we had the opportunity to punish them but because we didn’t punish them, as always at this level of football, you pay the price.”
Sunderland had the chances. “And they were not half-chances, they were golden chances,” their manager said. There were a handful of them, with Fabio Borini blowing the first on four minutes, when one-on-one with Petr Cech, and Patrick van Aanholt the final one, in the 89th minute, blazing over from the substitute Jack Rodwell’s pass.
Arsenal got the job done. It was not a performance or occasion that will linger long in the memory – save for the embellishments of Mesut Özil, the assist-meister – but the positive reading says that title-chasing teams must pick up unremarkable wins. More immediately, it was a tonic before Wednesday night’s do-or-die Champions League away tie against Olympiakos.
“For our confidence, it was vital,” Wenger said. “If we hadn’t won, everyone would question the players we were missing and the fact we had not won for four league games. For our serene side, it is better to prepare for the Olympiakos game knowing that we have won.”
Wenger did not seek to downplay what is at stake in Athens. His team have qualified for the second phase of the Champions League in each of the previous 15 seasons but if they do not beat Olympiakos by two goals, or by one goal while scoring at least three themselves, they will fall short.
“Our record means a lot to me,” Wenger said. “I want to win and I want to qualify. The one positive thing is that we know exactly what we have to do. We were a bit insecure against Sunderland because we had not won last week [at Norwich City]. It will be a different game, psychologically, against Olympiakos. We just have to go for it.”
Ramsey will be key, not least in terms of how he strikes the balance in his own game between protecting the back four and looking for goals. Given the central midfield role he craves because of Cazorla’s injury, Ramsey was highlighted for praise by Ian Wright on Match of the Day but, in truth, his display was mixed.
There was the lovely assist for the goal by Giroud at the right end, plus his own late finish, but there were a couple of misses and some heavy touches and loose passes. It was only Ramsey’s second start since a five week lay-off with hamstring trouble and fitness-wise he remains, in his own words, “a bit short”.
“It’s a bit easier at home because we have the majority of the ball, and [Mathieu] Flamini normally stays behind, so we have that bit of licence,” Ramsey added. “But against Olympiakos, I will have to be a bit more professional in the way we manage the game.”
Allardyce felt it was the “best performance” of his seven-game reign and Sunderland will stay up if they continue to play like this – defensively sound and smart in their approach work. The only problem was the profligacy.
“You can’t coach finishers,” Allardyce said. “All those coaches who say they coach finishers are lying. It’s instinctive. Our natural finisher is Jermain Defoe. Perhaps, if he hadn’t been injured today, he would have got two or three. He will be back next weekend.”
Man of the Match
Mesut Özil (Arsenal)