Alexis Sánchez once again bailed Arsenal out of a stuttering performance by scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. The Chilean has been key in salvaging a draw at home to Hull City and a win over Anderlecht in midweek, and an Arsenal team that again failed to impress were indebted to their big summer signing to avoid losing further ground in the Premier League. Sánchez capitalized on two catastrophic errors from Sunderland, first racing through to score after Wes Brown’s woeful attempted pass-back on the half-hour mark and then adding a second in injury time after being gifted the ball by goalkeeper Vito Mannone.
The win moves Arsenal up into fifth place and means that they at least won’t fall further than the already cavernous 11 points behind leaders Chelsea. But this was again an Arsenal performance lacking any real spark or fluidity. Having refunded supporters following an 8-0 drubbing at Southampton, Sunderland fans could have no question about their side's commitment. However, they showed plenty of scars following the events of seven days ago to undo an otherwise more encouraging display. Before Mannone’s late blunder, there was a fair degree of nervousness in the Arsenal backline as the visitors failed to put their limited opponents away. Sánchez ensured Arsenal made it over the line, but he looked as frustrated as anyone that they did so with a pronounced limp.
It was a match that started with Arsenal showing the effects of a tough night in Belgium less than 72 hours earlier and Sunderland the fragility brought on by their humbling 90 minutes a week earlier. Mannone, who had to endure seeing eight goals fly past him and was explicitly culpable for one on the south coast, spilled a cross early on and was left to thank John O’Shea for being on hand to clear.
Encouraged by the lack of vitality on show in their opponents, Sunderland began to get going and arguably even shaded the opening 30 minutes. Nacho Monreal continued to look ill at ease in the center of defense, while his partner at the back Per Mertesackerhad to make a smart intervention to deny Patrick van Aanholt from getting through on goal. Sunderland were displaying a strong desire to atone for the horrors at Southampton and for the most part had a solid look to them. But then one monumental lapse of the sort that was repeatedly on show at St. Mary’s again proved costly.
The experienced Brown panicked under typical Sánchez pressure, allowing the former Barcelona forward to race through on goal and, after coolly waiting for Mannone to go down, delightfully dink the ball into the net. Sunderland were clearly rattled and Arsenal suddenly had more purpose about their play. A second goal looked like it might quickly follow, but Santi Cazorla’s effort soared just wide of the post, while Calum Chambers shot straight at Mannone rather than squaring for Danny Welbeck at the back post.
The anxious mistakes at the back kept coming for Sunderland after the break, but Arsenal lacked the sharpness to take further advantage. Arsene Wenger’s already depleted defense suffered a further blow 17 minutes from the end when Kieran Gibbs, who was finally benefiting from a run of fitness, had to be taken off. Behind a further rejigged defense, Wojciech Szczesny all-too familiarly came unwisely rushing out of his goal before heading the ball straight to Van Aanholt who should have done better than blast wide of a vacant net.
As Sunderland pushed forward in search of an equalizer, Arsenal had their chances to seal the three points. Yet Cazorla was having an afternoon to forget and failed to make the most of three presentable chances in the closing stages. Thankfully for Arsenal, Sánchez was more decisive. Mannone was done no favors by a back-pass in tight confines by Will Buckley, but he still had ample time to get rid of it rather than taking an awful second touch to allow the always alert Sánchez to charge in and deliver a simple finish for his eighth goal as a Gunner. Where would Arsenal be without him?