Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal: Battle Level

Hello all! John, your Preview by Numbers guy here, pinch hitting for Sean on this match recap. I feel like every time I end up writing the recap, it's the type of game that left my nerves completely shattered at the end (see the 3-3 draw with Fulham from earlier this year.) Let's get on with this, shall we?

There is often a lot of talk in the media about Arsenal's shortcomings: prone to defensive errors, a bit dodgy on set pieces, and a lack of mental resolve when "the going gets tough." On Saturday at the Stadium of Light, Arsenal's defensive abilities were put to a stern test, via injuries and a red card, and the Gunners passed. It was a vital victory, in a stadium where Arsenal have struggled in years past and on a day when Tottenham and Chelsea won as well.

In terms of team news, there was good news at the start, as Laurent Koscielny passed his fitness test and appeared ready to start for Arsenal, despite his calf injury on international duty midweek. Then, in warm-ups, Koscielny aggravated that injury and could not play after all. Since the side had been named already, Carl Jenkinson came in to start at right back, Bacary Sagna was pushed into the center of defense, and Arsenal's bench had one fewer substitute available.

Elsewhere in the side, Aaron Ramsey got the start in midfield along with Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere, while Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, and Olivier Giroud comprised the front three. There was no place in the starting XI for Lukas Podolski or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

As for Sunderland, Lee Cattermole passed fit and got the start, while Martin O'Neill opted to keep the out-of-form Stephane Sessegnon in place behind Steven Fletcher in his 4-4-1-1. Lifelong Newcastle fan Danny Graham, just purchased from Swansea at the end of the transfer window, would not yet get his first start for the Black Cats.

In fully expected style, Cattermole was booked within 88 seconds for a foul. The opening exchanges were played at a break-neck speed, with chances for both sides signalling that Sunderland were not content with just parking the bus as they did at the Emirates in August. Just eight minutes in, Carl Jenkinson went into referee Anthony Taylor's book for a foul on Jack Colback.

Arsenal had the better of play in the first half and were finally rewarded for it in the 36th minute. Jack Wilshere played a ball for Theo Walcott, who himself did not have much space. Theo squared the ball over, instead of opting for the turn himself, playing it to Santi Cazorla, who fired a low shot through two Sunderland defenders and past the diving Simon Mignolet. And so, it was 1-0 to the boys in the yellow and redcurrant (does the purple and black clash with red and white?) at halftime, though it probably could have been more.

Unfortunately, in the second half, things got a bit dicey. And, by a bit, I mean holy lord, what a ridiculous half.

Sunderland started the half with a substitution, taking off Cattermole (who had been carrying that yellow card) and bringing in former Gunner and set piece specialist Sebastian Larsson. A minute in, Sunderland had a shout for a penalty as Sessegnon went down easily in the area as he tried to round Nacho Monreal, but Taylor waived play on.

Things started to turn further in the wrong direction when Jack Wilshere went down in the 49th minute and immediately signaled that he needed a substitution. Oddly, he never went down the tunnel for treatment, and sat on the substitute's bench for the rest of the match. Abou Diaby came in to replace the young Englishman, who had played 90 minutes for the national team against Brazil on Wednesday. Post-match word from Arsene Wenger seems to suggest Wilshere's injury will keep him out "4-5 days."

With Wilshere no longer in the match, Sunderland started to take the game to Arsenal a bit more, and in the 63rd minute, Sessegnon was clattered into by Jenkinson, who knew he was in trouble and waved his finger in the hopes that it would convince Taylor it wasn't worthy of a second yellow. Of course, it was, and Jenkinson was given his marching orders.

Speaking of the referee, Anthony Taylor had an abysmal game, frequently failing to call obvious fouls. To be honest, his errors went both ways and I think, in the end, neither side could feel particularly aggrieved by his decision making. From an Arsenal perspective, however, the cynical challenges from Sunderland added up and took its toll physically, on Wilshere especially.

Back to the match, as Arsenal now had 27 minutes plus injury time to defend a one goal lead on ten men while already carrying a scattered back four. A daunting task, for sure. Rather than make a substitution to bring on the only available defender on the bench (Ignasi Miquel), Arsene Wenger opted to shift Aaron Ramsey back into Jenkinson's right back position. Miquel eventually did come on, for Theo Walcott, in the 87th minute.

Sunderland, sensing they had a chance to get something from the match now, threw the kitchen sink at Arsenal over the final half an hour of play. It has to be said, while Arsenal have struggled recently with defensive lapses, the makeshift back four plus Wojciech Szczesny were all brilliant when they had to be today. Heroic defending from a out-of-position Sagna and Ramsey, plus what might have been Szczesny's best game in an Arsenal shirt. He made a particularly fantastic save on Fletcher in the 77th minute, which should have been flagged for handball from the Sunderland forward in the build-up. Szczesny made another brilliant save on Fletcher, this time from a header, in the 85th. The resulting corner came to chaos, but Titus Bramble fired wide from five yards.

Arsenal had a number of chances to extend the lead as well, but a few players fired over the bar (Cazorla and Giroud were especially guilty of this in the final minutes when they should have been taking the ball to the corner to kill time) and Theo Walcott had a shot bounce off the woodwork in the 75th. The comfortable margin of victory would just not come for Arsenal. Ultimately, the extra goal was unnecessary, and you can see from Wojciech Szczesny's facial expression how important these three points were.

We hear so much about Arsenal's frailties from the media all the time. So often, the chorus shouts that Arsenal struggles to raise their battle level when the going gets tough. For two weeks now, Arsenal have silenced those critics, first by beating Stoke at their own game, then by rising above adversity against Sunderland.

The trick is to keep it going.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8, Jenkinson 5, Sagna 7, Mertesacker 7, Monreal 7, Arteta 8, Ramsey 7, Wilshere 6 (Diaby 6), Cazorla 8, Walcott 6 (Miquel N/A), Giroud 6.

Man of the Match: It was certainly a tale of two halves for Arsenal: Santi Cazorla ran the show in the first and scored the game's only goal, while Wojciech Szczesny shut the door on Sunderland's comeback effort in the second. Ultimately, the nod has to go to the Pole in Goal, Wojciech Szczesny, for his string of brilliant saves to keep the clean sheet.