Arsenal started the new season much like they’d done the previous one, with a goalless draw. Oddly enough, they’ve done so on only 5 occasions in 109 years…
… but it’s twice in a row now.
The game was quite predictable. Sunderland started with good energy and created a couple of chances early on. McClean really should have scored after he was free inside the box. Mertesacker had dropped deeper and played him on. The Sunderland winger though, could only hit it straight at Szczesny.
The Black Cats were getting some joy on the counter attack in the early minutes and the Gunners seemed to respond to that by putting the hand brake on and restraining the forward forays of the full-backs. The midfielders were also a bit cautious with their use of the ball and that closed the door on any opportunities the visitors could create.
Unfortunately for the Gunners though, this also meant their own attacking impetus took a hit. Arsenal attempted over 700 passes in this game and completed around 91 percent of those but most of it was in front of the Sunderland defence. In a way it felt that both teams hit a comfort zone in the first half, which suited Sunderland who’d come looking for a draw.
The visitors were happy to cede 10 yards or more to the wide players when they hugged the touchline. The Gunners didn’t find the wingers fast enough and the wide men, on their part, didn’t make enough diagonal or horizontal runs so it was easy for the defenders to shift across when the ball went wide. Sunderland routinely had 2 or even 3 players blocking the run/cross from wide areas.
Wenger’s side could not produce any clear cut chances in the first half. There were a couple of noteworthy shots from distance but the keeper was always going to save those. Podolski was close to getting on the end of a square ball in front of goal but that was well cleared by the defenders.
Arsenal showed more urgency as the game went on in the second half. It seemed the visitors were tiring and they weren’t getting as tight on their man as they’d done in the first half. The Gunners pushed more bodies forward to exploit the time and space available to them and there were large patches of the game when they were camped in the Sunderland half or even the final third.
To their credit, Martin O’Neill’s side remained committed and organized on and around the edge of their penalty box, which meant they could block most of the shots or deal with attempted through-balls. Often it was desperation stuff but it worked.
Wenger introduced Giroud for Podolski, Ramsey for Diaby, and Arshavin for Theo as the game edged towards a frustrating end. The only clear-cut chance for the Gunners came in the 82nd minute when Cazorla played a lovely reverse through-ball for Giroud. The Frenchman fired it well wide with his weaker right foot. Interestingly and for whatever it’s worth, OPTA stats didn’t show that as a clear-cut chance!
Wenger’s men had 23 shots in total compared to Sunderland’s 4 but only had 3 on target compared to 2 by the visitors. Arsenal did not have a single shot on target from inside the box. Part of that was down to poor creativity and finishing but some credit also goes to Sunderland who blocked 10 of the 23 shots.
From a defensive point of view the Gunners were rarely threatened after the initial adjustment was made so there isn’t much to analyze. I did see Mertesacker track Sessegnon deep into the Sunderland half on more than one occasion. That to me is a definite improvement. The big German didn’t let his man turn on the ball and that slowed the game down allowing others to run back and cover. In the past we’ve seen the defenders drop off a yard or two and this has allowed opposing strikers a chance to turn and run at them or pick forward passes. Still this is just one game so there can’t be any conclusions drawn. It’ll be something to follow in the forthcoming fixtures.
There’s very little else to analyze in such a laborious game except a few comments on individuals which I cover in the next section.
Szczesny: Paid day off for the Pole.
Jenkinson: Saw a lot of the ball but rarely in decisive areas. Space created by Walcott drifting inside wasn’t utilized effectively. Wasn’t tested defensively. Passing and crossing could have been better.
Mertesacker: Largely solid except that one moment where he played McClean onside early on. Kept it simple at the back. Good work of tracking the striker as discussed above.
Vermaelen: Arsenal’s captain did a lot of sweeping on the left side when Sunderland tried exploiting the space behind Gibbs. He also tried venturing forward but didn’t get any supply. Another one who had an efficient if unspectacular game.
Gibbs: Was probably the most energetic and adventurous of the defenders. Also made a number of vital tackles/interceptions. Got into useful attacking positions, especially in the second half, but wasn’t able to make a meaningful impact.
Trouble free day for the defenders at the back but more is expected once they get in the attacking areas.
Diaby: Defensive abilities weren’t really tested. Wasn’t able to drive the team forward at the required pace but didn’t make any major mistakes and came through without fitness worries.
Arteta: Was everywhere (119 passes, 96 percent accuracy, and 131 touches). Did a very good job of shielding the defence with a number of important tackles/interceptions. Had very little creative impact but that was mostly because of the fact that he was often the deepest lying midfielder and looking to keep things simple.
Cazorla: Created 7 chances but only one of those really stood out. He looked the classiest player on the pitch but a lot more is needed from such a player when the opponents are sitting deep and narrow. Wasn’t able to effectively link with Podolski and they got in each other’s way more than once. It wasn’t a bad performance by any measure but he clearly needs more time to gel with his teammates and adapt to the league. Physically he was brushed off the ball once or twice. He will have to quickly learn how to use his body strength better.
The three man midfield struggled against a side that played really narrow. Arsenal’s wide players just did not provide the clever link play needed against such a defence. That meant the midfield saw a lot of the ball but couldn’t produce sufficient penetration.
Walcott: Looked like he had greater freedom to roam and hang around in the central areas. But he wasn’t able to link with Podolski or the midfielders on a consistent basis. Was inconsistent with his touches and passes but there clearly was an effort to offer more.
Podolski: Dropped deep often but wasn’t really able to combine with the midfielders or the wide players. A number of good moments were squandered as he either made the wrong choice or picked the wrong pass. For instance, when Gervinho won the ball in front of his full-back, Poldi should have held his position and fed the run of the Ivorian via a one-two instead of making a run in-behind himself. In the second half Jenkinson had made an excellent forward run when the Gunners were on the break but the German didn’t see it and instead played a back pass which scuttled the attacking momentum. Even in the Cologne game Arsenal didn’t create many useful combinations in the second half when Poldi was playing down the middle. It’s a challenge for Arsene: Should he persist and give the player time or should he move him to the flank?
Gervinho: Probably the player who will divide the opinion of fans like no other in this game. Another typical ‘exciting and frustrating’ display from the winger. Attempted almost half the dribbles made by the whole side and succeeded with roughly half his attempts. Didn’t have any decisive product at the end of all the running and dribbling. All four of his shots were blocked as he attempted most after running into a crowd. Did get to the byline on a number of occasions but there is a difference between teams in Asia and those in the Premier League. Sunderland defenders forced mistakes once he did get there or just got in place to clear his cutbacks. Had a total loss of possession figure of 25 in a total of 73 touches.
A big part of the problem in attack was a lack of understanding between the front three and Cazorla. This will be rectified with practice but Arsenal cannot afford too many games where the attack doesn’t click. Having two quick runners who lose the ball often and don’t always make the right choice puts greater pressure on the midfield and Arsene will have to sort this out quickly. It’s not a new problem. Benayoun was last season’s temporary fix towards the end but a more permanent solution is needed.
Subs: Giroud missed the best chance of the game but his presence and movement was interesting. Ramsey did well with his passing, not so well in the duels, and probably tried too hard with his shooting. Arshavin looked energetic but also misplaced a couple of passes in risky areas.
Wenger: There isn’t much the manager can do when the players need more time to gel together but I thought he made the wrong choice in selecting both Walcott and Gervinho. Let’s see if he gives this system of two wingers some more time.
This wasn’t the start most fans or even the manager and players would have hoped for. Lack of an ideal pre-season could be an excuse but it was in Arsenal’s control. The new signings need time but that can’t be given as a reason for too long as the Gunners cannot afford another start like last season’s. Let’s also not forget this game was played against a Sunderland team that had only won 1 in 6 pre-season games and had lost against the likes of Leicester City and Hartlepool United.
Arsenal simply have to do better.Follow @goonerdesi