Last season Arsenal visited the Stadium of Light around about this time, Feb 11th to be exact, and came back with a vital late win thanks to an Arshavin assist and an Henry goal. While the comeback was complete, it was far from a comfortable win. Indeed, the Gunners lost at the same venue a week later in the FA Cup.
Even though Wenger’s side have not lost many games against the Black Cats, they’ve not had great success at Wearside either. Before last season’s scrappy comeback, you’d have to go back all the way to the 07-08 season for an Arsenal away win away to Sunderland.
Trips to the North-East in general are tricky encounters. The stat zone article on Arsenal.com tells us the Gunners have only lost 1 of their last nine visits to the region, but it’s also worth noting they’ve only won 3 of those games. Wenger himself acknowledged this in his own way,
When you travel up to the north and come back with three points, you feel you have done very good business. For us, that’s the target.
Given Arsenal’s position in the table, they’ll need the points if they don’t want to rely on luck in the race for the Champions League spots. Needless to state, it won’t be easy.
Martin O’Neill’s team have conceded 12 goals in 12 home games. That’s an impressive record bettered only by four teams in the League. They’ve only conceded 2 goals in their last five home games with 4 clean sheets including a 1-0 win over City.
It’s interesting because they don’t have extraordinary individual quality in defence. Few would list the names of O’Shea or Bramble among the League’s top defenders, for instance. But collectively Sunderland can be a very hard nut to crack. It’s more about organization, discipline, and hard work, classic MON some might say (although Bruce before him wasn’t very different either).
Sunderland are 18th in terms of possession with 43.5 percent. Although that does improve to 46.7 percent at home (14th), it’s not really a key part of their strategy. They often invite pressure but remain dogged in defending the critical zones. The Black Cats concede 17 shots per game on average (3rd most) and while it goes down to 15 at home, that is the highest number of shots any team is conceding at home in the League this season. It doesn’t quite correlate with their impressive goals conceded figure. The way I see it is that Sunderland are very efficient at minimizing high-quality chances, and while doing so allow teams to have more attempts at goal from relatively harmless positions. So the number of shots conceded is very high but goals conceded remains disproportionately low.
Creating clear-cut opportunities will be a challenge for the Gunners. They’ve ripped some teams apart but these were evidently poorly organized outfits. Wenger’s team has to prove they can carry the same form into games against defensive-minded units.
As mentioned above, the Sunderland defenders aren’t great individually. The trick for Arsenal will be to isolate them and force mistakes. Wider areas and inside channels should be of particular interest. The movement of the front three and their understanding with each other as well as the midfield will be worth observing.
I am also keen to see how Martin O’Neill approaches this game. He’ll surely believe his team can get something from this game. Will that mean Sunderland come out and play higher up the pitch in search of goals? Or will they remain conservative and bide their time. After all, set-pieces and counter-attacks are always good avenues for reaching the Arsenal penalty box.
I do have a feeling the hosts will apply some pressure on the ball to attempt to disrupt Arsenal’s build-from-back process. Whether it will happen from kick-off or if they take a few minutes to suss out the Gunners remains to be seen. Both teams will have a good chance of scoring when they do so. Arsenal could be in trouble if they can’t handle the pressure and make unforced errors, but they could also have more space to exploit in the attacking areas if they can get past the initial pressure.
Given that Wenger has a strong midfield available to him, I doubt if Sunderland will try such tactics for too long. Arsenal should be favourites to dominate possession and it’ll be up to them to ensure it’s not ‘illusionary domination’, as Wenger had so aptly labelled some of their earlier performances.
The game will be more interesting to watch if O’Neill picks both Graham and Fletcher in attack. Sunderland will then be more keen on pressing the Arsenal defenders and the game could be a battle in the central third. We might see factors like desire and confidence coming into the picture.
Arsenal’s off-the-ball tactics will also be worth observing. Will they drop off into their own half and allow the hosts some time on the ball? It could work in pulling Sunderland away from their goal but the Gunners will have to maintain their shape or this approach could backfire.
Arsene will most probably pick his starting eleven based on their fitness levels after the midweek internationals. Arteta should start as he didn’t travel with Spain and there could be a temptation to pick Diaby in midfield.
That said, it’s really difficult to imagine leaving any of Wilshere, Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud, or Walcott out. Arsenal don’t have anything before next Saturday, and that’s an FA Cup home game against Blackburn, so Wenger should be able to field is strongest available team in this one.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.
There will be a genuine headache for the manager if Koscielny is not fit. I have a feeling he will play with painkillers if he can/has to. The other options are worrisome.
Sunderland have won 5 of their last 10 games after winning only 2 of their first 15. As discussed above, they’ve a formidable defence and an impressive recent home record. But Spurs and Chelsea have won at the Stadium of Light and scored 5 goals between them. Can Arsenal match that?Follow @goonerdesi