There will be more daring displays from Mesut Özil. There will be goals. There may even be a genuine push to make Arsenal relevant again. Spending £42m (and spending it well) turns heads. The heads certainly span as they tracked a player of genuine quality offering Arsenal a new narrative.
Özil took 11 minutes to introduce himself, a delightful first touch to take control of a ball down the left from Kieran Gibbs, a second to tee up Olivier Giroud who strode onto the pass to score Arsenal’s opening goal. It all looked effortless and only later did there come the admission from Arsène Wenger that he was not supposed to play.
“If Santi Cazorla had been fit, he would have certainly been on the bench due to the fact he was sick,” he said. “I would not have taken the gamble. There was not much choice. Özil was like the team. He had an outstanding first half. He dropped physically in the second half. He was sick on Thursday night. I decided only to play him this morning. He had a stomach bug. He didn’t feel well. His first half was outstanding.” As were Arsenal.
Giroud, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey rose in the presence of their new team-mate. Only Theo Walcott floundered. He should have had a first-half hat-trick, twice teed up by Özil. Instead there was profligacy in his finishing. He did not look composed. The first effort was saved by Keiren Westwood to his right, the second he stood up to and stopped.
By the third he had Walcott’s number. Walcott, like Wenger, was ultimately indebted to the referee Martin Atkinson for Özil’s debut not to end surrounded by familiar questions about failing to turn dominance into victory.
Sunderland’s second-half fightback was so surprising because there had been no suggestion of it. Adam Johnson, who had been handed the captain’s armband, was captivating, and in the third minute of a completely different half, he tumbled under a clumsy challenge from Laurent Koscielny as he headed away from goal.
“From outside, honestly it looked a penalty but I have to see it again,” admitted Wenger. “I was from a distance from the bench.”
Craig Gardner fired the ball past Wojciech Szczesny. Arsenal had a game, but they also had an answer. An emphatic answer. Carl Jenkinson crossed from the right in the 66th minute, and from there Ramsey smashed a superb, first-time volley past Westwood.
Sunderland again responded. Five minutes after the goal came a moment that would lead to Paolo di Canio’s dismissal. Jozy Altidore collected a pass on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area, and had the physical strength to hold off and turn Bacary Sagna. Atkinson, unknown to most people, blew what seemed far too quickly, as the moment reached its natural conclusion with the American forward hitting a shot that struggled but just managed to cross the goal-line.
Atkinson called the game back. The home crowd voiced disbelief and anger. Di Canio sat on an advertising hoarding, struggling for words. It could not be questioned that it was a goal-scoring opportunity. The ball ended up in the goal. Sagna stayed on, the goal was disallowed and Gardner smashed the free-kick over the crossbar. Di Canio fumed. It ended his side’s brave challenge.
In the 76th minute the excellent Giroud slipped in Ramsey and his finishing remained true and clinical. Arsenal had their victory but Di Canio had still to have his fight.
In injury-time, as the substitution of the injured Giroud dragged on, he called on Atkinson to add more time. The pair argued. Di Canio was sent to the stands.
“I said you have to tell them to do it quicker,” said Di Canio. “He said, ‘If you keep going, I will send you off, I’ll send you to the stands.’ I said, ‘If you want to complete a perfect job today, send me off.’
“He said, ‘Go off’. I am sure he is a good man. A good professional. He he made a mistake. That decided the outcome of the game. It is important they accept it. He made a mistake. It is clear. I don’t think there is anyone who can disagree. It can happen to anyone.”
Wenger himself admitted: “We were a bit lucky yes. This kind of situation can go in your favour and in the favour of Sunderland. We were lucky. It was one of those things.
“We had an outstanding first half with plenty of chances. Theo could not finish today but we were only one-nil up. The break came at the right moment for Sunderland.
“They were a different proposition in the second half. They came back strong and we dropped physically. After that we had mental resources to find two goals again. It was a very eventful game, a very interesting one.” More so for the presence of Özil.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Westwood; Celustka, Diakite, Roberge, Colback; Johnson, Vaughan (Gardner 46) , Ki, Mavrias (Borini 71); Altidore, Fletcher (Wickham 77).
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Sagna, Kosciely, Gibbs; Ramsey, Flamini; Walcott (Monreal 88), Ozil (Vermaelen 80), Wilshere; Giroud (Akpon 90).
Star man: Ozil
Match rating: Seven
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Match rating: 7/10