Sunderland vs. Arsenal: Sanchez shows scoring flair in pedestrian 2-0 win

Sanchez led an under-performing Arsenal side to a 2-0 victory on Saturday by capitalizing on two mistakes from the Black Cats. It wasn’t a pretty performance, but the Gunners won two straight games in all competitions for the first time this season to pull within three points of Manchester City in the Premier League.

Sunderland vs. Arsenal

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The two goals Sanchez scored are testimony to his tremendous work rate. The Chile forward pressed high up the pitch in the 30th minute and intercepted a weak backpass from Brown to bear down on goal and chip Mannone for the opening goal. In stoppage time, the Sunderland goalkeeper took too much time for a clearance and lost the ball to Sanchez, who tucked into an empty net.

Arsenal would be far behind in the race for a Champions League spot without Sanchez’s contribution. He could have also scored in the 60th when he pounced on a poor clearance from Van Aanholt, but his low drive went straight into the arms of Mannone.

Welbeck was not on the scoresheet. However, he performed well in spite of some poor service again from his teammates. The England forward cut inside to curl a shot over the bar in the 15th. He then met a cross from Monreal in the 80th but missed the target with his reverse header.

Dodgy officiating

In the closing minutes, a selfless Welbeck showed some good understanding with Cazorla, who was let down by some poor finishing. The Spaniard fired over the bar from 18 yards in the 89th before sending another effort into the stands from 12 yards in stoppage time. A bemused Welbeck managed to keep his cool in the 49th when the referee gave him a yellow card for diving while it was a blatant obstruction from O’Shea.

The officiating was sometimes dodgy but in the end it had no impact on the result. Brown clearly tripped Oxlade-Chamberlain on the edge of the Sunderland box in the 24th but the referee did not even blow the whistle. A few seconds later, Gibbs received a yellow card for a similar foul on Johnson near the touchline.

Wenger made two changes from the side that drew 2-2 with Hull City a week ago, with Chambers and Arteta replacing respectively Bellerin and the suspended Wilshere in the starting lineup. It was an intriguing team selection because Flamini and Arteta started together for the first time this season.

A tactical tweak

The manager departed from his usual 4-3-3 system to rely on a 4-4-2 formation, which was supposed to give more firepower with two strikers, Welbeck and Sanchez, while providing enough security to the back four with Flamini and Arteta in midfield. The obvious downside was that we had less creativity since Rosicky and Ramsey were both sitting on the bench, which meant that the onus was on the wide players, Cazorla and Chambo, to create plays.

Unfortunately, Cazorla and Chambo had a poor game. Chambo had a high turnover rate but made a couple of runs that destabilized the Sunderland defense. Cazorla had no positive impact on the team’s passing game and also wasted quite a few chances. He killed a counterattack with a poor pass to Sanchez in the 48th and his swerving drive from 25 yards sailed wide in the 33rd. Actually, I was surprised that the manager didn’t give Podolski and Campbell a chance in the second half. Wenger waited the last minute of regulation time to replace Chambo with Rosicky.

Slow tempo

Sunderland had lost 8-0 to Southampton the previous weekend. So it made sense to put them under pressure in the opening minutes. But Arsenal never moved the ball quickly enough to stifle the Black Cats with a high tempo. I guess playing in Belgium on Wednesday night affected the Gunners’ fitness level. The slow pace of the game helped Sunderland grow more confident in the second half.

The Black Cats managed to create four chances. Their opportunity in the 52nd looked very much like Hull’s second goal. A lack of defensive focus allowed Rodwell to meet a cross from Larsson, but his header lacked power to beat Szczesny. Cazorla gave Larsson too much space on that play while Flamini lost his duel with Rodwell.

The other chances resulted from Arsenal’s mistakes. Sunderland capitalized on a turnover in the second minute to get the first scoring chance of the match. Buckley rounded Chambers to cross the ball for Fletcher, who headed wide. I had no idea who Buckley was, but he seriously troubled Chambers, who looked slow to turn at times.

A depleted squad

Cattermole then stole the ball from Sanchez in the 65th and fed Larsson, whose long-range strike was saved by Szczesny. The Poland goalkeeper made the wrong decision in the 81st when he came off his line to claim the ball. He realized he might catch it outside the area, but instead of punching the ball into touch, he headed it toward Van Aanholt, whose volley went wide.

Monreal looked solid at centerback. His reading of the game allowed him to win many tackles while his relative vulnerability in the air was never tested by a Sunderland side that lacked attacking ambition. I felt Monreal’s sound decision-making, better than Koscielny’s, protected Arsenal from potentially risky situations.

The only bad news from Saturday’s game came from Gibbs, who picked up a hip injury. The England fullback joins Ospina, Debuchy, Koscielny, Diaby, Ozil, Gnabry, Sanogo and Giroud on the disabled list. Wenger will have to be cautious for the next three games as our squad looks really thin. Resting Ramsey, who came off the bench in the last five minutes, and delaying Walcott’s comeback in the Premier League were wise moves in that regard.