Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0
I didn’t catch the Leyton Orient game live and as such couldn’t comment on it during the week, but it was reassuring to not see a hangover from the cup final defeat that preceded it. On many occasions in the past, one bad performance has rolled into another, and before you knew it, four matches had passed, and all hopes for trophies had disappeared in the blink of an eye. One bad month and the other eight months can mean little.
And while many will look at today’s result and last weekend’s disappointment and link the two, I don’t buy it. We haven’t played well in many games this season where we’ve been missing our top stars (I’m thinking some of the FA Cup games in particular, in which they were rested), and this was largely the same. Without Cesc driving the team forward, without Theo stretching them wide, and without Van Persie providing superb movement and a threat both inside and outside the box, we looked toothless for much of the game. Sunderland have to take the credit for a lot of that, but some of it was borne out of the same failing we’ve seen on occasions this season – a baffling lack of urgency.
Only in the last twenty minutes did we come alive, and it should have been enough, but for a pair of poor officiating decisions that were the difference between the analysis of ‘they didn’t play very well, it is a major blow to their title hopes‘ and ‘a sign of champions is playing badly and winning, so they’re heading for the title‘. Fine lines.
The first was a blatant penalty not given – Titus Bramble, having already tried to pull Arshavin back, stumbled and pushed the Russian over with two hands as he shaped to shoot. Bramble has never been the most subtle of defenders, and it was hardly the most subtle of fouls, yet went mysteriously unnoticed and unpunished. Still, baffling penalty decisions occur every week, sometimes you have to take it on the chin and move on.
More difficult to take was the late ‘goal’ chalked off for an offside decision that wasn’t even close. Arshavin thought he had won the game only for an erroneous flag to deny him, and ultimately the team, two valuable points. The pair of decisions were exactly of the type you need to avoid on a day where things aren’t clicking properly – the match had scrappy 1-0 written all over it.
Having said all of that, I’m always loathed to go overboard on the referee. I’ve mentioned before that if a striker misses a glorious chance and the referee makes a critical mistake, blame is always laid squarely at the feet of the official. The trouble is – everyone makes mistakes. It is certainly true that the referee’s bad decisions were a reason why we didn’t win today. But equally, we didn’t play particularly well, and didn’t create enough chances to render his performance irrelevant. The dropping of two points can be attributed to either of those two facts.
I guess the reason why refereeing mistakes are so infuriating is that they are out of a manager’s control. If a striker he buys and trains misses a hatful of chances, he has an element of control over that – it is his team out there, playing under his philosophy and based on his training regimes. But when a perfectly valid victory is wiped out because of the poor judgement of the referee, it is ten times more annoying.
There is little we can do about it other than accept it and move on. I don’t buy into the conspiracy theories – sadly many of our top flight officials are simply not particularly competent. Mark Clattenburg, for example, should not be a Premiership referee, but take a look down the leagues and you begin to realise why he is considered elite. The standard at all levels is poor.
Despite all that, there are reasons to be positive. Midweek, we feared United going seven points clear – the gap is now three, and they have something of a defensive crisis ahead of their trip to Liverpool tomorrow, in a game I would be very surprised to see them win. More a pressing concern is Tuesday’s game in Barcelona – Wilshere hobbled off today and is now a doubt, adding to a growing list. Once again we are being robbed of our best players at the critical point of the season – it is a tired old story that is consistently preventing us from seeing how far the team could go if only they could stay fit. Let’s hope Jack’s knock is a short term one.
We’ve gained ground this week. It might not feel like it, but we have. Come on Liverpool.