If you had only seen the first half of this game, you might have expected Jack Wilshere or Santi Cazorla to emerge as Arsenal’s man of the match. Instead, by the time the full-time whistle blew, it was undoubtedly Bacary Sagna.
In the first 45 minutes, Arsenal’s midfield interplay was spell-binding. A midfield containing Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla bent Arsenal’s conventional 4-3-3 out of shape, instead forming a magic square of immensely talented footballers which slowly took hold of the game.
However, at the start of the second half, Arsenal lost Wilshere to what looked like a thigh injury. The absence of their talisman interrupted Arsenal’s momentum, and the pendulum began to swing in favour of Sunderland. This change in dynamic was confirmed when Carl Jenkinson was dismissed for collecting a second yellow card.
A game that Arsenal were dominating suddenly became about a brave rear-guard action, and Bacary Sagna was at the heart of it.
Sagna’s heroic display was made all the more impressive by the fact that he was playing out of position. Until five minutes before kickoff, he was expected to play at right-back. However, Laurent Koscielny aggravated his calf problem in the warm-up, and Sagna was asked to shift over to an unfamiliar central role.
In the face of adversity, Sagna excelled.
As Sunderland cranked up the pressure, the Frenchman emerged as Arsenal’s de facto defensive leader. Other players provided able support: Wojciech Szczesny made several fantastic saves, and Aaron Ramsey filled in admirably at right-back, but no one could match Sagna’s commitment. He was everywhere, putting his body on the line for the cause.
The statistics from the EPLindex back it up. Sagna made 15 of Arsenal’s 49 clearances. He won 100 percent of his tackles and competed for 10 aerial duels, winning 60 percent. By comparison, his giant centre-back partner Per Mertesacker competed in just one.
When the full-time whistle blew, Sagna held his arms aloft in triumph. He knew the significance of this victory, and he knew how big a part he’d had to play.
Sagna’s excellence was in stark contract to the performance of his young understudy, Carl Jenkinson. In recent weeks Sagna’s form has fluctuated, leading to some Arsenal fans to call for his demotion. However, the match against Sunderland showed the difference in class between the two players: while Jenkinson was sent off for two rash challenges, Sagna was thoroughly dependable in a new role at centre-back.
It’s a day of retribution for Sagna. On the eve of the game, he admitted:
I’m going to be honest with myself - [I’ve not been] at my best. I’m not very happy with myself, but it’s football. It’s a part where I need to get better. I’ve been working since last summer but I need to work more because I’ve been out a long time.
Sagna’s patchy form has seen him become somewhat maligned among Arsenal fans. His contract has only 18 months to run, and there are concerns that perhaps his ambitions lie elsewhere. Sagna, however, went on:
Everyone is waiting for me to perform well so I’m looking forward to doing it.
Against Sunderland he delivered and we saw just how good he can be. If he keeps producing performances of this quality, he will win back the Arsenal fans very swiftly indeed.