SUNDERLAND, England // Before Robert Pires had made his Arsenal debut in 2000, he sat on the bench at the Stadium of Light and wondered what on earth he had let himself in for. As the tackles flew in and Sunderland exploited the height of Niall Quinn to win 1-0, he found a game he’d never experienced before and wondered if he’d ever cope in the Premier League.
Mesut Ozil suffered no such crisis of confidence.
Although he faded as Sunderland rallied in a controversial second half – perhaps the effects of the stomach bug that prevented him training on Friday – he was, as Arsene Wenger said, “outstanding” in the first.
No player had registered as many assists in Europe’s top five leagues as Ozil over the past three seasons and it took him just 11 minutes to notch his first in English football, setting up Olivier Giroud for his fourth goal in as many Premier League games this season.
At that moment, it seemed just a matter of how many Arsenal would score. Ozil, constantly moving, finding space, picking holes in Sunderland’s rearguard, seemed able to create chances at will, his link-up with Theo Walcott a constant threat.
“He had an outstanding first half,” said Wenger, “but we decided only today to play him.
“He dropped a bit physically in the second half but his first half was outstanding.”
But for Walcott’s profligacy – three times before half-time he was clean through and each time he drove his shot into Kieran Westwood – Arsenal would have been out of sight. Sunderland’s central midfield pairing of David Vaughan and Ki Sung-yueng simply did not offer enough protection for the back four.
“We were too shy,” said the Sunderland manager, Paolo Di Canio.
The introduction of Craig Gardner for Vaughan at half-time gave Sunderland greater bite and they levelled early in the second half after Laurent Koscielny had tripped Adam Johnson. Gardner swept in the penalty.
Suddenly there was a ferocity to Sunderland’s play and while there was always a sense that they were a little too frenzied – that the storm would eventually blow out – there was a time when Arsenal were genuinely under pressure.
Quality, in the end, told, as Aaron Ramsey crashed in a volley from Carl Jenkinson’s cutback, but that was just the precursor to the game’s deciding moment. As Jozy Altidore tangled with Bacary Sagna, the Arsenal defender fouled him, but the US forward battled through and slid a shot past Wojciech Szczesny.
The referee Martin Atkinson, though, had already blown for a free kick and then, mystifyingly, showed Sagna only a yellow card. Even Wenger admitted Arsenal “were a
bit lucky in that situation”: after all, there can hardly be a better definition of a goal-scoring opportunity than the forward going on to score.
“The referee has the power to wait for the dynamics of the action to finish then decide what happened and it was obvious Altidore was more powerful,” said Di Canio.
“He made a mistake and this decided the outcome of the game. It can happen – he’s a man.”
Di Canio was sent off in injury-time after protesting about the length of time it took Giroud to receive treatment. After Atkinson told him that if he kept complaining he would be sent from the touchline, Di Canio told him: “If you want to complete a perfect job today you have only to send me off.”
The outcome was inevitable and Di Canio ended the game watching from the tunnel. “I’m sure he’s a good man,” Di Canio said.
Wenger seemed genuinely concerned by Giroud’s knee injury and said Santi Cazorla will be out for at least a month with an ankle problem.
By the time Di Canio walked, Ramsey had added a third after a one-two with Giroud to seal a 3-1 win.
Next week’s game at fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion already takes on great significance.