Phil Smith’s analysis: Sunderland are just not good enough to compete at this level

Sunderland keeper Jordan Pickford denies Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramseyy. Picture by Frank Reid
Sunderland keeper Jordan Pickford denies Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramseyy. Picture by Frank Reid
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Sunderland’s bottom-placed finish was confirmed at one of the Premier League’s great arenas.

It was far from full, and this was an Arsenal side far from at their best, but as they began to purr in the driving rain, a tepid opening hour giving way to an irresistible final 30 minutes, what has been so clear for long was depressingly borne out.

Sunderland are just not good enough to compete at this level.

The warm reception that greeted the players as they applauded fans at the final whistle told you that this was not a day when questions over effort or commitment were the order of the day.

A midfield three of Didier Ndong, Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson all emerged with distinction as they harried, pressed, tackled, trying to spark counter-attacks when they could.

The back five wobbled badly in the opening stages, Arsenal’s prodigiously talented front line beginning to sense a weakness and preying on it.

They steadied and stood firm, for a while at least.

There was almost a goal, Ndong and Jermain Defoe both drawing fine saves from home keeper Petr Cech as the half wound down to a conclusion.

After one of the most wretched home days in memory against Swansea on Saturday, this was at least an occasion when the team and fans could leave if not proud, then certainly unbowed.

Nevertheless, it was never truly likely to be enough.

It ended, as it so often has done this season, with Sunderland reeling on the ropes, never likely to stage a fightback, overrun and outclassed.

Arsenal poured forward and Sunderland had no response, other than their remarkable young goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, who underlined his burgeoning reputation with a majesterial display of shot-stopping.

It truly was an exhibition.

There was excellent management of one-on-one situations, remarkable reflexes and, though his distribution was not flawless, at times he carved Arsenal’s five-man defence open with ease.

Hector Bellerin, at one stage, had to admit defeat and merely palm the ball away on the half way line.

The pace of Pickford’s kick, his trademark out of hand delivery, flat and swift, had caiught the Spaniard unaware and Defoe was loitering behind with intent.

To be relegated, bottom of the league, with such a talent between the goalposts, is such a travesty it is almost impressive.

In retrospect, the defeat seemed inevitable, but it must be said that, for much of the game, it did seem that way.

The tepid atmosphere in a far from full Emirates Stadium belied how important a game this was for the Gunners, a win essential to keep alive faint hopes of qualifying for the Champions League.

In the opening exchanges, the gentle chatter in the ground, the half-hearted chanting, barely audible applause and nervous chanting, made for a mood more akin to the first morning of the test at Lord’s.

A football arena it was not, and it affected an Arsenal side whose slow moving of the ball, lack of attacking movement and weakness in the 50/50 challenges reflected the lethargy in the stands.

If they had only flickered in the first half, in the opening of the second there was no fire at all.

They were absent-minded, careless and downright negligent, summed up by a farcical period of play in which Nacho Monreal almost scored an own goal, spraying a backpass wide of Petr Cech under no Sunderland pressure.

Billy Jones should have scored when free from a free-kick at the back post just minutes later, but it seems one goal from a diving header is very much his quota filled for the season.

That raised some hope, but, inevitably, Sunderland could not keep it up. They have never been able to this season, and the opener was a lapse so reflective of their defensive sloppiness all season.

They looked to be under no pressure at all when Granit Xhaka picked up the ball on the edge of the box.

Sunderland’s defensive line was deep and good, but Fabio Borini let Mesut Ozil ghost to the byline, pointing to no one in particular to pick up the German.

He crossed, where Sanchez was waiting, unmarked, to open the floodgates.

From there Sunderland collapsed, unable to resist.

Without Pickford they could have gone down by four or five.

A result, that while restored a little pride, will do little to change perceptions of this side and this manager.

A result that will do nothing to answer questions about why they seem able only to press for a portion of the game, why their concentration is poor, their creativity lacking.

Why the manager has not been able to get more from them, why it again took a goal against to force a substitution. Why a stirring comeback seems never to be on the cards, such is the lack of confidence and belief.

Sunderland’s future has not changed at all in the aftermath of this clash.

At least, however, fans and players felt able to look one another in the eye again.

The manager decided not to approach again that debate – the divide rumbles on, to reach a critical moment next week. Last night is likely to have little effect.