What a big win, and a big loss! Conceding the goal in that manner added another chapter to the special Arsenal edition of 101 Extraordinary Ways To Concede A Goal. While the remarkable comeback in extremely trying circumstances completely countered the impact of that goal in the short term, the injury to Mertesacker will make the future games all the more challenging. Then again, what’s an Arsenal season without persistent injury worries.
Focusing on the game itself, the stand out observation was the appalling condition of the pitch that would likely shame many of the lower division sides. It’s hard to digest that even in 2012 the football community does not have better guidelines for minimum quality of playing conditions, especially when such high quality professionals are involved and at risk. I shudder at the thought of seeing the players out on that pitch again next Saturday.
Tactically the game was quite predictable. Sunderland got bodies behind the ball, often with the highest man halfway inside their own half. They chased every ball in their defensive third, excelled at maintaining their discipline and structure, forced Arsenal wide and minimized, almost eliminated, the opportunities to create quality chances.
In attack, the hosts were limited to long balls down the channels that helped them reach the Arsenal final third. They did win a few set-pieces but rarely threatened. A lucky goal and a long range strike or two were all they could muster.
The Gunners struggled for various reasons. The pitch and dogged quality of defending aside, Arsenal were exposed for their inability to threaten from wide areas. There were many occasions when the passing and movement created half a yard or more for a wide player but either the cross was poor or there just weren’t enough targets in the box. A degree of pre-determined, functional attacking approach is needed to succeed in such situations but Arsenal haven’t quite mastered it yet. With greater emphasis on wide players getting in behind this season, Wenger’s side have improved their crossing and movement but are still a long way away from being considered a top class side in that regard.
On the rare occasions when the players did find space in the attacking third, either their touch let them down (often due to the difficulty in controlling a wobbly ball) or their decision making wasn’t up to scratch.
As a result, Arsenal too, created few noteworthy chances but in keeping with the stunning conversion rate of the previous game, they managed to find the back of the net twice despite few shots on target.
The first goal was all about Ramsey. He’d taken up a good position on the edge of the box and was lucky that Arteta’s hopeful strike rebounded in his direction. But the way Ramsey hit the bouncing ball, spinning his shooting foot in an anti-clockwise manner to guide a bouncing ball towards the far corner, away from the defenders coming out to block, was commendable. Again he was a bit fortunate with the deflections off the goalposts but it’s hard to hold that against him or the Gunners given the way Sunderland scored their goal.
Oddly enough, before the game Arsenal had only 4 goals from outside the box while the hosts had 10. But in this fixture it was the Gunners who struck a vital blow from distance.
The winner came in injury time when Arshavin floated a perfect cross in for Henry to guide home. It’s worth noting that the two best crosses from Arsenal came from Arshavin in the final few minutes.
Henry’s instincts were superb and it’s almost impossible to teach something like that. It’s the reason he’s above the other strikers in the pecking order, despite a lower work rate and a seemingly lackadaisical attitude.
Similarly, Arshavin’s ability to find a cross between two defenders was exceptional. Not only that, he was able to deliver it perfectly between the two central defenders. Oxlade-Chamberlain was in such positions often during the game but inevitably ran into the defenders while trying to take them on. Just shows the talented young man has a lot to learn. No shame in that of course, but often the hype machine in overdrive tends to miss the relevant details.
With two strong wins Arsenal have now turned the tide around after a disappointing start to the new year. Milan have had a few blips of their own recently and it’s set up a very exciting first leg at the San Siro.
Szczesny: He made a couple of good saves. Was generally confident with his catching and movement. Had one iffy moment when he came out of the box and almost had another mix-up with Koscielny. Questionable positioning for the goal. He was inside the goalpost and thus wasn’t cutting the angle for the strike. Could have come a yard or two out to narrow the angle and make it hard for McClean.
Sagna: Had a tough time on the Right but did an excellent job. Won 9 of his 10 aerial duels (contributing immensely to Arsenal’s astonishing success rate, 15/17, in AD). Also won all his tackles and was successful with his clearances. There were occasions when Sunderland got past him but he was tenacious enough to track back and limit the damage to a corner or a throw.
Mertesacker: Won all his tackles, aerial and ground duels. Very solid game at the back till he was injured. Also saw a lot of the ball as Arsenal moved it around the centre line, and was generally efficient in distribution.
Koscielny: Another player who saw a lot of the ball and had a team-high 97 percent passing success rate. Did venture forward occasionally but couldn’t really make an impact. Wasn’t as successful with his tackles but didn’t really let the team down either.
Vermaelen: It was interesting to see him high up the pitch on numerous occasions, often a lot more advanced than Oxlade-Chamberlain. But he wasn’t able to link up with the youngster as well as one would hope for. Wasn’t half as busy as Sagna at the other end.
The back four weren’t under pressure except for the moments when Sunderland were able to deliver balls into the box. They handled most of the crosses fairly well but there were a couple of occasions when the ball dropped to the unmarked Gardner around the edge of the box. Arsenal must also find a better way to use the ability of the full-backs to move up the pitch. Neither linked up well with the wingers and Sunderland were quite safe despite ceding the wide areas a number of times.
Song: Was dominating in the middle but also misplaced some key passes. It’s probably harsh to blame him given the condition of the pitch. Had an efficient game defensively making a couple of vital tackles when playing as Centre Back.
Arteta: Clocked over a hundred successful passes with 94% accuracy. Was all over the pitch and kept the game ticking but wasn’t really able to provide any incision. Might have done better if Arsenal got more bodies into the box.
Rosicky: Rosicky was able to get in between the lines on a few occasions but either he couldn’t make the best use of his position – inappropriate decision, over hit through-ball, execution not quite working out, etc – leading to the highest Total loss of possession figure in the side, or he didn’t get the right support like the time Van Persie couldn’t play it back to him when he was getting in behind. Nevertheless it was a hard working effort that saw Little Mozart make the most interceptions and also lead the possession won in midfield stat.
Ramsey: Technically excellent, opportunistic finish ( even if he didn’t connect as well as he’d have liked), completed 28 of his 29 passes. Also had a decent defensive shift and didn’t look sloppy in possession.
The midfielders had a lot of time on the ball but with a wall of Sunderland bodies in front they couldn’t really find the attacking players in an incisive manner. Arsenal also lacked a midfield player who could arrive into the box to get on the end of crosses.
Walcott: He was almost always in a crowd. Rarely got a chance to run in behind. On one occasion he did that, Theo produced a decent strike across the face of goal. Should have done better with his crosses. He has to maintain his composure in tight spaces and should not just attempt a cross for the sake of crossing.
RvP: Was persistently fouled but maintained his composure. His touch wasn’t at its usual level but the bouncing ball had a lot to contribute to that. Still created the most chances and never stopped trying.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Probably tried too many dribbles for such conditions and opposition tactics. Movement off the ball and decision making on it needs a lot of work but that’s understandable.
Sunderland went really tight on RvP and always had two men on the wide players. This made it hard for all of them but one would like to see some tactical flexibility from Arsenal. For instance, pre-determined crosses to the back post with the other winger arriving is one option. Better use of the width provided by the Full Backs with the wide players playing on the edge of the box for a stretch of time is another. The wingers should also have swapped positions occasionally.
Subs: Arshavin must be commended for his professionalism apart from his obvious quality on the ball. Hopefully, he will be shown the respect he deserves. Henry owns the penalty box, the very definition of a super-sub.
Wenger: Picked the right team, wasn’t afraid of introducing Ramsey or Arshavin. Has managed to keep their spirits high despite unjustified and incessant criticism. Deserves credit for getting the performance out of the players in such conditions.Follow @goonerdesi