They say that by the age of five an average English speaking child will have a vocabulary of around 1,800 words.
The bloke who sits near me at the Stadium of Light gets by with approximately eight, although to be fair he can make nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs and expletives from the same root word and in his capacity of chief moaner is doing a great job training up his young apprentice. It takes an outstanding effort from the team to shut him up but even then, in his eyes, the players rarely get it right. Sometimes this makes watching the game difficult, especially when he’s not far wrong!
Last Monday, Pete Sixsmith and I went to the Sage at Gateshead to watch a live performance of “The Transatlantic Sessions”, an eclectic mix of traditional musicians from all parts of the British Isles and North America. They bring their various talents together in musical arrangements that cross the various genres so that some Cajun accordion playing will blend with Uilleann pipes and the poems of Rabbie Burns, sung by a young woman from Dumfries and Galloway, will be accompanied with steel guitar and Kentucky style banjo. You always know what you are getting and you aren’t constantly disturbed by people getting up five minutes before the interval and the encore.
You can’t say the same about watching Sunderland. They too have an eclectic mix of performers who can gel and produce the most entertaining and rhythmical football, but at other times the players seem to be on different pages, out of synch and unable to harmonise.
It isn’t easy to predict which team will turn up although history seems to have started repeating itself far too frequently. A criticism of mine for all of this season and some of the last one too, revolves around the tactic of playing deep right from the off, soaking up pressure and waiting to break down the opposition defence. Add to that the lack of movement off the ball, a lack of penetration in attack and a preponderance of sideways and backward passes and I can almost see what the bloke near me is on about. But then there are times when the side shows aggressive, attacking intent, a commitment to hard work and individual flair and at those times we are a match for any side.
Today was a case in point. For much of the season the manager’s choices have been restricted by injuries to key players. Danny Rose’s inclusion should have been a reason for optimism because apart from Simon Mignolet and Stephen Fletcher he has been head and shoulders above the rest. But instead of bringing a smile to my face it produced a sigh when I realised that this would mean Jack Colback moving back to midfield, paired with a returning Lee Cattermole and the as yet unproven Alfred N’Diaye. I envisaged the tried and tested tactic of stifling the Arsenal midfield to make the defence difficult to break down, as the more forward thinking pairing of Vaughan and Larsson were relegated to the bench. Recently Colback has shown a desire to get forward from the fullback position but when he’s in midfield his orders seem to be to keep possession at any cost and play according to the Ray Wilkins’ Book of Midfield Passing Options
There are those who argue that if we start off with a more creative midfield and attacking intent we’ll find ourselves out of the game before half time. It’s a theory but personally I feel it better to keep the opposition out of our half as much as possible and that we will be more likely to get something from the game if we create chances rather than never threatening the opposition’s goal.
In the opening minutes however, I thought that maybe my prayers had been answered as Gardner and N’Diaye linked up for the first opportunity to put the ball in the back of the net. But it didn’t take long for the visitors to take control. They passed the ball much more fluently and players moved into space so that the man in possession had options, allowing them to develop the play quickly and create goal scoring chances. Once again our keeper showed that he is worth two or three goals a game to the team, bringing off a couple of excellent saves early on and another just before the interval. The first after 82 seconds was an instant after Lee Cattermole’s clumsy mistimed tackle on Jack Wilshire which earned him an early card in less than the time it takes to get a Big Mac at a drive through. No surprise there then! Not long after Wilshire took another clattering from Bramble although from my seat it looked like a good old fashioned tackle which won the ball. But after Wilshire’s long layoff I can understand Wenger’s apprehension whenever he is challenged firmly.
As they settled into the game Arsenal moved the ball about at will, putting it into spaces for others to run onto with Walcott showing why he has been held in high esteem for a number of years now. Bramble was having another solid game in the heart of defence, though his hoofs upfield, whilst clearing immediate dangers, inevitably conceded possession. On one of our forays forward the young fullback Jenkinson made the first of two mistimed tackles when he upended Colback and got a yellow card for his rashness. It would have an effect on the latter stages of the game although ultimately didn’t affect the result.
Maybe it’s the “bloke behind me” but I’m going to turn a positive into a negative. One of the strengths of Sess, AJ, Danny Rose and Fletcher is their ability to keep the ball and beat players in mazy little dribbles. But (and here’s the negative) this is because when they get the ball to feet no-one is moving into a space where they can deliver a defence splitting pass. They get the ball, they twist and turn but without support end up in blind alleys and either end up losing the thing or going backwards. With only one up front we never seem to have enough of an attacking threat, especially when Norman Stanley is drifting out wide.
Eventually Arsenal’s movement and positive approach brought them their goal with Wilshire and Walcott involved before Santi Corzola drilled the ball through a crowd and past Mignolet. The Londoners deserved their halftime lead and my half time 7 stored in drafts read “Pedestrian Sunderland outrun by slick moving Arsenal.”
The second half, like the first, began brightly. Sess got into the Gunners’ penalty area and looked to have a goal scoring opportunity before going to ground. A penalty could easily have been given but I would have been annoyed had a similar one gone against us. To my eyes Sess is trying too hard to win free kicks and penalties. He must listen to Alan Hanson every week but I’d much rather he stayed upright.
Both sides were now creating chances and in fact Fletcher had a goal disallowed but as he was clearly offside no complaints. After 62 minutes there was the potentially game changing sending off when Jenkinson again mistimed a tackle, this time bringing down Sessegnon and the inevitable second yellow followed.
Despite this Arsenal still pushed forward whenever they could and several shots were just off target, including one from Walcott which hit the base of the post. But now at last Sunderland were also pressing and Szczensy impressed as much as Mignolet had done. The introduction of Graham for N’Diaye who despite his promise had a quiet game was the second potentially game changing event. Once we had two up front, we seemed to exert much more pressure on the Arsenal goal and were unlucky not to get an equaliser but a game is played over 90 minutes, not 45 and it frustrates me that time and again this season we only seem to threaten after we are behind.
Can we afford to start with two up front? Most of us have an opinion. Martin O’Neill’s is the one that counts but I’d love to see Fletch and Graham start a match. They certainly look as if they can gel and after a run of defeats it may well be time to try something new. Also Martin, when you read this, try playing Colback behind a fit Danny Rose down the left. No game next week so you’ve plenty of time to try things out on the training ground.