Arsenal have two visits to Sunderland on consecutive Saturdays in different competitions and both have the potential to improve the season but could also make it far worse. The focus for now, obviously, has to be on the more immediate fixture that is the upcoming League meeting.
It would be an understatement to suggest that Martin O’Neill has turned the fortunes of the Black Cats around. His side have picked up 22 points from a possible 30 after the change in manager, which is probably the League’s best current form. Most fixtures are tough but this one is definitely going to be a sterner test than the recent games against Swansea, Fulham, or Bolton where the Gunners dropped vital points.
Tactically, O’Neill is very efficient at creating a cohesive defensive unit. The Sunderland players will be very well organized, they will be very tight with their man-marking and pressing, and will not make many individual mistakes. Arsenal won’t be able to move the ball forward in a manner that we have seen in recent games. The number of chances too will be limited.
In attack the new Sunderland boss will probably revert to type and rely on a lot of wing play that starts with a long ball from the back looking to utilize the pace of players like Campbell and Sessegnon. The Beninese footballer is fairly tricky and can trouble the defenders if he finds space. At the very least he can hold on to it and bring others into play.
The hoof-and-hope tactic will not be their only approach but is likely to be a commonly used one. Sunderland might also get some joy in pinning Arsenal back during patches of the game if they succeed with pressing higher up the pitch. Even in that scenario the main threat will be from balls into the box and set-pieces.
Arsenal will again rely on pace down the wings to create the chances. The quality of finishing will have to match that seen in the previous game or at least come close. I will be surprised if more than one goal separates the sides at full-time.
The duels are likely to be closely contested and the side that does better in those is likely to have a better game in general. I fully expect Sunderland to give their all and go for every ball wholeheartedly. At the end the side that wants it more will probably get the desired result.
Since there was a week’s break after the previous match, and there haven’t been any fresh injury concerns, I’d prefer to see the same side starting in this game but with Sagna taking the place of the impressive Coquelin.
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, AOC.
Wenger will probably have to make some modifications during the coming week as Arsenal play three games in that period. With that in mind he could rest Song or Arteta in this one and pick Coquelin in midfield instead. He will probably have to use Benayoun at some stage as well. It might be as a substitute in all the games or it could be as a starter in one of the three.
Arsene could also decide that one of the central defenders needs a break and could play both Sagna and Coquelin in full-back positions.
However, I do feel he needs to go with the strongest team in this game and then look at the choices in the coming days depending on the result of this fixture. Arsenal need all the points they can get if 4th place is to be achieved.
Before ending I wanted to share a link to this article I did for EPL Index. Did you know Arsenal have only scored 4 goals from outside the box this season while Sunderland have 10, making them the third best in the League behind United (11) and City (14)! Those and other stats on long range goals and shots are discussed in that article. (The site was down for some reason a short while back, so in case you don’t see the images containing the stats please check back later).
Also, in case you haven’t seen it already, you might want to check out my previous blog post analyzing a couple of Arsenal’s goals against Blackburn. One that was scored in 21 seconds with 10 passes and 15 touches involving 10 players while the other was a long move lasting 50 seconds and close to 40 touches. Hopefully, we see some of the attacking aspects discussed in that post at the Stadium of Light. That would make for an enjoyable game that will end, quite possibly, in a desirable result.Follow @goonerdesi