Draw it is then. Not a great result by any means but I was really happy with the effort put in by the players in the final twenty minutes or so. Once again it can be said a referee stole two points away from Arsenal by not giving as blatant a penalty as there can be. And the linesman did his part by disallowing what looked like a perfectly legal goal although it can be argued that the Keeper might have done better if the flag had stayed down.
I don’t what to dwell too much on the performance of the ref as it is extremely frustrating. Sunderland are not a dirty team but they did get away with a lot of fouls, many of which were quite late and seemingly intentional. Hopefully there won’t be a serious injury resulting from this game but some players, especially Wilshere, didn’t look that good towards the end.
One thing that I must say about the ref though is that he seemed like a guy who didn’t really understand the game well enough. This was highlighted when he called a foul on Nasri late in the game when the Frenchman just used his body to shield a ball that was within his reach. Calling that a foul and not punishing many of the Sunderland players for needlessly rough play tells me the ref doesn’t understand football and wasn’t able to read the game.
Moving on from the ref, one must ask some questions about the performance of the team in the first half. Surprisingly, Arsene picked exactly the same starting eleven as I’d in mind. Denilson and Diaby gave the team better defensive balance but both were extremely poor in bringing the ball out of defence. I didn’t have great expectations from either of the two but was really worried by the number of technical mistakes that were being made. Denilson’s touch was quite disappointing and his passing was lax at dangerous moments leading to two corners. Diaby just wasn’t able to turn after receiving the ball and it left me wondering whether he was fully fit.
Of course, Sunderland deserve credit for their hard work and discipline. As expected they pressed high up and as a unit. Arsenal couldn’t get the passing game flowing for most of the first half. Wilshere didn’t drop back often enough as Fabregas does in such cases. The youngster should not be criticized but it’s not difficult to see he is a long way away from performing the ‘Cesc Role’, as it is called.
Nasri and Arshavin didn’t get into the game often enough because the link from the defence to the attack wasn’t working due to the failure of the midfield. At these times one wishes to see a bit of a functional approach from Arsenal in the form of a ball played high to the striker or long down the channels. No team can replace the players of the calibre of Cesc or Van Persie with equivalent talent so it becomes imperative to have some flexibility in the tactical system.
I’d not advocate such tactics as a common course but without having that as an option Arsenal make it really easy for the opponents when they get their act together as Sunderland did.
I was also hoping to see Arshavin and Nasri come more central with Wilshere dropping deep alongside the two defensive midfielders. This would have given Arsenal better presence in the middle of the park leading to faster movement of the ball.
One aspect that I did appreciate, but seems like one that needs more work, was that Djourou and Koscielny tried hard to come out with the ball and contribute to the play as midfielders. I haven’t said this often but Vermaelen was really missed in this game for his technical ability in advanced areas.
The second half performance from Arsenal was better but not that different till the first substitution was made. Arsene brought on Chamakh for Denilson with Bendtner going wide, Wilshere dropping deep, and Nasri moving into the middle.
There can be an argument that such a tactic should have been used from the start. It’s easy to say this with hindsight but I’m not sure it would have made that big a difference. As the game went on the visitors tired and couldn’t keep up the pressing that they did at the start of the game. So later on it was easier for Arsenal to move the ball. The change in the flow of the game was not only down to the substitutions but also down to the physical levels of the players. That is the reason we see opponents retreating into their half instead of continuing with their initial tactics despite their success.
After the change Arsenal did show a lot more purpose and started dominating the game. Sunderland had to defend for their lives. Mignolet made some excellent saves, Chamakh hit the bar, a penalty was denied, and a valid goal was disallowed.
In the end the result wasn’t ideal but one must commend the players for the effort. I was also impressed by the willingness of the players to get into the box and to put crosses in. Even the quality of the crosses was quite good. Unfortunately it remains an extremely inefficient tactic per se and sometimes it just doesn’t work.
Sunderland too had a couple of decent chances late in the game but Szczesny and the defence did well. Once again the tactical system used by Arsenal to defend set-pieces led to sustained pressure from the opposition when the ball should have been at the other end. It doesn’t last long but it does allow the opponents some breathing space after they’ve been under pressure. This is one area where Arsene has to find a way of improving the team.
On the whole I’m not too disappointed as it was a predictable result. Those who had made the mistake of taking a win for granted will be infuriated but it’s more a problem of their understanding. I don’t buy the arguments that United would have found a way of winning such games. They’d just have won the penalty that Arsenal didn’t. The margins really are that fine.
Szczesny: as expected, was called upon to make two or three saves and did an excellent job. Was a little bit shaky when the ball was played back to him and didn’t get enough distance on his clearances, an area that he has acknowledged he is working on.
Sagna: Usual again. A bit disappointing early on as he struggled to move the ball along with Diaby. Did much better in the second half.
Djourou: Brilliantly composed in the box. Dealt with a number of dangerous crosses. Brought the ball out a few times but didn’t find many options ahead of him.
Koscielny: Similar to Djourou but did most of his intercepting and tackling outside the box. Good distribution and tried getting into the opposition penalty box late on.
Clichy: Very good in attack and defence. Didn’t have many targets in the first half. Arsenal should have used him better in the second half when there were more bodies in the box.
I thought the back five did really well considering the poor performance of the midfield in the first half. Not only did they work hard to keep Sunderland out, they also tried to move forward and got into useful positions.
Denilson: Very poor game. Wasn’t able to bring the ball out, conceded a couple of corners with sloppy passes, seems to be losing confidence.
Wilshere: Wasn’t able to involve himself in the first half. Received a lot of rough tackles but showed good composure. Made some good runs but wasn’t able to find the final ball.
Diaby: Not sure if he was fully fit. Too slow and wobbly for a man with his technical ability.
The midfield three were the big disappointment. Put a lot of pressure on the back five in the first half and took the attackers out of the game for large periods.
Nasri: Another one who could have done more with his movement in the first half. Looked very dangerous whenever he got the ball and found some space. Finishing lacked composure. Excellent free-kick.
Bendtner: Decent game from the big Dane. Didn’t get enough service in the first half but he should have dropped back a bit more often to create space for the wingers and to provide another option for the midfield. A couple of decent attempts on goal. Might have done better in the final moments but it’s hard to get it right when you can’t see the ball all the way through. Good ball that set Arshavin through.
Arshavin: just like the other attackers, he wasn’t that influential in the first half. Much, much better in the final half-hour. Should have won a penalty and wasn’t off-side. Could have shown more composure after Chamakh cut one back to him as he was in a lot of space and Nasri was free to his left.
Subs: Chamakh put in a good shift, hit the bar, and created a good chance for Arshavin. Rosicky put in a couple of good crosses at the end.