Misery for Bannon
Arsenal started brightly, attacking from the kick-off, the ball just too heavy for the pacey Asisat Oshoala to chase.
They refused to relent throughout the opening moments and would get their reward as the deadlock was broken. Rachel Furness had her pocked picked by Fara Williams as she tried to clear the danger and Williams blasted the ball into a dangerous area. Stephanie Bannon was first to react but she was only able to divert the ball past Rachael Laws and into the back of her own net; Arsenal leading with just 90 seconds played.
Meadow Park rocked with noisy fans demanding a second and they didn’t have to wait long for it either. After protracted Arsenal pressure on the right, and a flurry of corners, Sunderland finally managed to clear the danger as Brooke Chaplen won a free kick in the attacking half. But the set-piece was poorly taken and Arsenal hit them hard on the counter-attack, Alex Scott with a long hopeful ball seeking out Oshoala, the Nigerian international working up through the gears to reach the ball before a green shirt.
With help arriving in the middle, Oshoala flashed the ball across goal, Bannon sliding into the box meeting the ball full and pushing into beyond Laws into the back of the net. Less than twenty minutes had been played, Arsenal hadn’t had a shot on target and yet they still led 2-0.
The Gunners dominated possession and even when Sunderland won the ball they seems short on ideas, players slow to see their options, the hosts constantly winning the ball back. What the Reds were doing with it in the build-up was impressive, they were relentless and spent most of their time around the opposition box, but players were reluctant to get shots off.
Natalia with a quick brace
A Sunderland rare break saw Chaplen unleashed down the middle of the pitch, running centrally and feeding Beth Mead. However, last season’s Young Player of the Year could do little with the ball and overcooked her cross to Stephanie Roche.
It had been their best move of the match but if it had given them a lift they were brought back down as Arsenal added a third on the half-hour. Vicky Losada, who was having a fantastic game, brought the ball forward, nutmegging Victoria Williams and laying off for Natalia Pablos to poke home at the back post.
Sunderland responded by going back on the attack, but a poorly weighted ball could only result in Chaplen volleying high and wide.
As Arsenal regained possession they began to pile on the pressure. Dancing around the away box, Marta Corredera burst forward with a late run into the box, coming onto the ball and smashing it against the far post. The Spanish international was still shaking her head at the miss as the ball rebounded straight back into the box, players scrambling for it as it stuck to an Arsenal boot, Scott trying her luck from close range but Laws forced into a smart save as the away team held on.
The clock was ticking away, Sunderland doing all they could to get in at half-time just three goals down, but it really wasn’t to be their day. Losada with a dinked ball into the box, perfectly found Natalia, her countrywoman volleying the ball low past Laws.
The half drew to a close as Mead tried her hand from 40 yards out, the effort always flying wide.
A subdued second half
As is so often the case when the game is effectively already won in the first-half, the winning team starts to switch off at half-time and, although Arsenal were still looking for goals in the second half, they had lost some of their cutting edge. Conversely, Sunderland, with nothing to lose, were doing their best to press and push as much as they could, and they did see more of the ball as well as having a handful of chances.
A notable early lapse at the back saw Keira Ramshaw pounce on the mistake, picking up the loose ball, but Casey Stoney forced her onto the outside, the experienced defender making it hard for the attacker as Ramshaw’s shot skewed harmlessly wide. At the other end, Natalia and Losada were having a fantastic game, linking up with ease, little one-twos evading a hoard of green shirts. Losada shimmied into the box with three Sunderland players around her and jinked through them with ease to get her shot away, Laws grateful to make the save.
A heart-in-mouth moment occurred as Bannon went to block a Losada shot, the ball well on target, with the defender on the cusp of a hat trick of own goals. However, her interception was perfectly timed and the ball flew out for a corner, one which was delivered to Losada 20 yards out, her firm effort well held by Laws.
With just over 20 minutes left on the clock Sunderland, registered their first shot on target, Ramshaw once more alert to a loose ball, shooting through Stoney’s legs, Sari van Veenendaal called into action to make the low save.
At one end Natalia was still looking for her hat trick and at the other Mead was forced to come deep time and again just to get a touch on the ball.
Less than ten minutes after coming on as a substitute, Dominique Janssen was on the scoresheet, although it was another that could have easily gone down as an own goal. The Dutch international unleashed a powerful strike but Laws was set to make the save, however, the ball caught Furness square and deflected into the bottom corner. The keeper wrong-footed, Furness prostrate on the turf and Arsenal with a fifth.
Another chance for the Lady Black Cats saw Mead head the ball across goal from a tight angle, with little room for shape on it. It skimmed wide but Sunderland were seeing a little more of the ball.
Another opportunity for the visitors came from them pressing the Arsenal defence well, Mead able to turn set the ball up for Roche and the Irish international took aim but, while was van Veenendaal beaten, ball slammed against the bar.
Finally though, Sunderland would have something to cheer about. Abbey Joice, who’d looked lively since coming on, did well to win the ball on the right before finding Mead with a through-ball. The striker worked space in the box before firing low into the far corner, a goal richly deserved for her hard work.
A class apart
Although visibly relaxed in the second-half, Arsenal still looked dangerous going forward. It’s not hard to see the pedigree of talent at Arsenal and it seems almost strange to suggest that the final ball was lacking when they scored five times.
However, both Bannon own-goals are preventable, even with the likes of Natalia lurking. The Spaniard’s brace was preventable too; against a stronger side, Arsenal wouldn’t have had those chances. That being said, everything the Gunners were doing in the build-up was exceptional, as always, using the width fantastically well. Whilst Natalia and Losada were the stand-out performers, Scott had a blinding first-half, stretching the play and tying things together on the right.
The same question still persists with Arsenal though; the build-up is there, but is the final ball?
It was yet another bad day at the office for Sunderland; conceding inside of two minutes, two own goals, low possession, no real ideas going forward. For most of the first-half it seemed as if the Black Cats just wanted the ball as far away from Laws as possible. It wasn’t a case of stringing passes together it was just one ball to clear, without any forward thinking. When a player was released with the ball, she rarely had help or ideas.
With each defeat questions of confidence will always be thrown up. Last season, Sunderland were riding high after their promotion and they used that as fuel for their maiden campaign, this season that’s dissipated and they’ve struggled. The team is unbalanced, everyone having to drop back to defend, Mead not even operating as a lone striker but just another body back. While there were flashes of something, some players with clear talent and potential, they didn’t have a chance of changing up through the gears, as it is, they’re just a class apart.