Yesterday, some readers thought I was too harsh or overly negative, which came as a surprise to me. Some thought I was reacting to the result which was quite strange. I read through the post again and couldn’t quite see where I said we were appalling because we dropped two points. I know I was in a bad mood and there was a little hyperbole involved, especially in the title. But I do stand by my opinion that this was one of the worst performances of the Wenger era. Without further ado, let’s get into why this was such a shocking display.
Firstly some stats,
- In the first half Sunderland had two thirds of the ball or 65 percent possession. Arsenal had 35 percent
- Sunderland hadn’t managed more than 45% in any game so far this season and they rarely did much better last year. In the game we lost last season they had 35% of the ball
- Sunderland got 251 out of 330 passes successful and we got 256 out of 305. Last season we completed 413 out of 497, whereas the hosts got 160 out of 243.
I know we have one point more than last year so if you just go by that we did better! But analyzing a football game based on the result is a flawed approach. Arsene always says we must take distance from the result and I completely agree with that. Otherwise we would just end up as the morons in the media who worship the winner and deride the loser.
As far as the goals go, we scored one that would redefine the word fluke and conceded one in pretty much the same manner as last year; Darrent Bent, free in the six yard box, benefits from some pin-ball and non-existent marking.
The real points that we need to discuss are what happened in the rest of the ninety minutes. Last season we completely controlled the game but couldn’t score. It happens. It was highly frustrating but we can give the opposition some credit for their defending.
Yesterday, we were completely outplayed by a rather ordinary Sunderland side. The midfield went AWOL and only a heroic effort by the defenders, particularly Koscielny and Squillaci, saved us. I don’t need to put in the passing chart from the chalkboards. Over the two games, the difference in the possession and passing stats mentioned above is significant enough to give you a clear picture.
Let’s focus on the midfielders first. Fabregas made 6 passes (all successful) in 29 minutes! I know he was injured after the goal but he made only two passes after the goal was scored i.e. one pass every eight minutes. He didn’t do much better before with 4 in 13 min at 3 min per pass. That’s double his usual and in half an hour I would expect about two dozen passes from him. This shows he was completely missing in this game, something as freakish as the goal he scored. It also makes one wonder why he wasn’t substituted earlier!? Was he fully fit at the start?
Wilshere made countless errors in the first half. Something that didn’t surprise me one bit as I’d already showed after the Bolton game that Wilshere will struggle when teams press us and don’t allow any time on the ball. That’s the reason I’d said he was the weak link. But I don’t blame him for the performance. He’s a youngster and is bound to make mistakes.
Againt Bolton, Cesc was able to drop deep and take charge. Wilshere was able to get into space and that made it easy for him. In this game, Fabregas was missing as explained above. That made it all the more difficult for young Jack, but given his age he did admirably. Given the requirements of his position he was quite poor. In a way you could say we paid the price for injuries in midfield. In hindsight, Arsene might agree that he should have picked someone else in that position.
Song was in a crazy mood. I was surprised by the number of times he went bombing forward. That meant he was always caught out of position by long balls and that put extra pressure on the defence. There was no one there to win the second ball or to sweep up after the clearances. This allowed Sunderland to sustain the pressure. They could collect the ball off a clearance and move it to the wing where Clichy was almost always exposed as Arshavin didn’t track back.
The Cameroonian also conceded some silly fouls and he looked really clumsy. This performance reminded me of the Song from a couple of seasons ago when he often made costly mistakes.
Once the whole midfield was missing it made life really difficult for the attackers. Nasri and Chamakh worked hard but Arshavin was a waste of space. He made 10 passes in one hour and absolutely zero interceptions, tackles, clearances, or blocks. I can understand someone being lazy but it’s different from being utterly useless.
Considering the discussion so far it’s safe to say that in the first half-hour we were roughly playing with 9 men. Cesc and Arshavin, our two best attacking players, were completely missing. Then from 29 to 55 min, we played with 10 men as Rosicky did some work while Arshavin was still missing. From 55 to 58 we were again down to 9 as Song was off and the Russian was absconding. Finally, we got the 10th man in the 58th minute when Arshavin was taken off. Is it a surprise that we controlled the game much better after that?
Many have said that our defending was exceptional (adjective of your choice) in this game. I disagree.
I’d say our defenders, mainly the central ones and Sagna, were superb but our defending was quite poor. To me ‘defending’ is a much broader term and it involves the whole team. Our defenders saved us but our defending as a team was quite shocking.
The reason I called our play “relegation style” was down to the number of clearances our defenders had to make, which was directly related to the football we were playing. Take a look at the following chart comparing the clearances made by Arsenal in the last two visits to the Stadium of Light.
In this game we made a total of 84 clearances with only 34 successful. Last season we made a total of 34 clearances with 23 successful. That’s a staggering difference. To put this into perspective, we made 51 clearances at Ewood Park this year. That was against a team whose sole aim was to put the ball in our penalty box from anywhere on the pitch. Further perspective comes from the fact that Sunderland only had to make 20 clearances in this game and 40 last season when we had two thirds possession. Stoke, West Ham, and such teams make about 30-35 clearances against Chelsea and United.
The number of clearances gives a good idea of how often the ball ends up in our defensive third and how it’s dealt with. 84 is a staggering number. That means the ball kept coming and we kept hoofing it. Nearly 60 percent of our clearances were unsuccessful which just proves the point I was making that the midfield wasn’t there to win the second ball. Last season more than two thirds of our clearances were successful, this was down to the fact that Sunderland were pushed back into their own half and couldn’t challenge for the second ball often enough. Another factor was that our midfield was doing well in that game and was available to help our defence.
There is further evidence in the clearance statistics that corroborates what I’ve said so far. In the first half we attempted 46 clearances and 38 in the second. But 20 of the 38 came in the final 7 min plus added time, which is understandable. That means we made only 18 clearances in the 46 – 83 min period. Once again it shows this was the period when we started playing some football and controlled the game better. Bulk of the credit for that goes to the Sagna, Rosciky, and Nasri. Wilshere made 9 passes in this period, Clichy 14, Denilson 17 (came only after 58 min), Rosicky 19, Sagna 20, and Nasri 21.
Sagna topped the passing chart with 45 attempted passes, Nasri was second with 43. Rosicky made an admirable 33 in an hour’s play and Wilshere was not bad with 36. This game once again showed why Nasri and Sagna are important to the team. They help us maintain possession and play football the way we want to. The creative burden is mostly left to Cesc and Arshavin but the work of the two Frenchmen is important to the balance of the side.
I hope now you’ve a better idea of why I said we played “relegation style” football. It wasn’t a reaction to the result. I was infuriated by what we did on the pitch and the article was a reflection of that.
I do agree that a draw is not a bad result but given the way Sunderland played I believe this was an eminently winnable game. I’d blame Wenger and his staff for the decisions they made. Arshavin should have been substituted early in the game. Wilshere could have been left on the bench and Nasri could have played in the middle. We could even have given someone like Gibbs a run in an attacking role. Once it was obvious that we were struggling, his pace might have been pretty useful and he would have made a far better defensive contribution than the Russian.
Anyway, all this is with the benefit of hindsight. We might have won even after playing so poorly and that should be seen as a positive. Let’s hope we get back on track against WBA next weekend.