I try to avoid superlatives in the match analysis but it’s tough to do that after such a game. This performance was heart-warming in so many ways and after a long while it felt like I was watching Wenger’s Arsenal for the full duration of the game.
Wenger went with four midfielders and left Podolski on the bench. The defence has a makeshift look with Sagna partnering Mertesacker and Jenkinson taking up the right-back berth.
Walcott tended to drift inside and played more as the second central striker who occasionally drifted wide. Cazorla was more a central midfielder than a winger of any sort, although he did perform a decent defensive role on the left flank. These tendencies kind of gave the team a 4-4-2-ish feel at times but I found it difficult to stick one formation label on Arsenal’s play. After a somewhat chaotic and hectic opening, the Gunners settled into a rhythm and their fluidity was immensely enjoyable.
In the post game analysis after the previous fixture against Stoke, I got a feeling I didn’t get my point across to a lot of readers. But if you look at the way Giroud and Walcott played in this game and contrast that with their earlier effort, you’ll see a stark difference.
The horizontal movement of Arsenal’s attackers and their ability to pop into space for quick link play was just sensational, even if the end product lacked precision at times. This movement and fast passing manufactured space where some of the earlier Arsenal teams this season would have struggled to find any. It also enabled penetrating runs from the midfield. As a result of that we also saw three, four, or five player combinations instead of just two players trying to break the defence while the others stood and watched.
For most of the first-half, Sunderland’s defensive players were forced into reactionary defending that was far from solid. They had to rely on fouls (often not given), good saves, and the Gunners’ inability to hit the target (probably the one big negative from the game). Not many teams will come to the Stadium of Light and stretch Sunderland the way Arsenal did in this game.
A very interesting aspect of Arsenal’s attack was that despite the narrow nature of Sunderland’s defence the Gunners didn’t really have to use width to create chances. They were able to combine through the middle as the speed of passing and the degree of understanding between the players was exceptionally high.
Let’s look at passes made and received by the two strikers – Walcott and Giroud – in this game and compare those with their efforts against Stoke.
Theo received more passes against Stoke, which could mean he saw more of the ball, but concentrate solely on the arrowheads and you’ll see that against Stoke Walcott was largely receiving the ball in a particular zone on the right flank. Against Sunderland there isn’t a single cluster where the passes are concentrated, which implies greater movement. Also noticeable is the way it is spread out horizontally across the edge of the box and a few yards either side of that.
Similarly, if we look at passes made by the Englishman, there is greater positional variation.
Against Stoke a lot of his play was wide on the flank. It was an area where Pulis’ side were happy for him to have the ball. Against Sunderland he was able to drift across the box and combine with his teammates. What is particularly of interest is that Walcott was able to partake in Arsenal’s short passing game and didn’t quite lose the ball as often as he’s done in the past. It’s still early days but this is a big step in the right direction and this game was an excellent example of just how the team can benefit through his improvements.
With Giroud there’s a comparable but slightly dissimilar case. Being the leading attacker he is mostly going to receive the ball in advanced areas.
If we ignore the long balls aimed towards him, the cluster in the middle against Sunderland stands out. In this game he was often able to drop short – just, but enough – to get the ball in front of the defenders in a central area. He also moved a bit to the left and combined effectively with his teammates in that zone, something he wasn’t able to do against Stoke (probably because AOC was stuck to that flank as Theo was to the right. As a result, Arsenal had three attackers in three different zones with very little interlinking).
When we see the passes he made (in the final third) along with those he received we get an even better picture.
Simply receiving the ball isn’t enough. He has to bring others into play. As is evident from the chart above, he was able to contribute to the build-up play in a meaningful manner against Sunderland. Against Stoke, even though Giroud did get the ball on the edge of the box on a few occasions, Arsenal weren’t able to build attacks from those points.
There were a couple of lines in a recent interview that caught my eye.
I’m also learning a lot in terms of how to play, particularly with my back to goal, my touch and the information I take in before I get the ball.
This game provided proof of the work being done behind the scenes on the training grounds. That work includes improving the Frenchman’s tactical awareness and making him a better all-round striker who can show for the ball even in tight spaces, hold off the defenders, and bring others into play with one-touch passes. This is another work-in-progress (only had 62 percent pass completion, for instance), but the signs are promising. He’ll only get better.
There is a valid argument that Sunderland were not as well-organized as Stoke were. This game was more vertically stretched than the one against Stoke, where the visitors had no attacking intent at all. So Arsenal found greater space in front of the home defence and the strikers were able to roam into those areas relatively unchallenged. That should not take anything away from their work but it does serve as a reminder that many sterner tests are yet to come.
When talking about Arsenal’s attack in this game, it’s imperative to mention the impact Wilshere had. There was a marked difference in the visitors’ attacking abilities with the youngster on the pitch and without him. His passing accuracy was the lowest of all midfielders (overall and in the final third) but Jack was able to glide past his opponents and his movement – with and without the ball – often forced the opposing midfielders to chase back facing their own goal. It was instrumental in opening up that space between the lines as he drove right through the first line of defence. He also took more risks and in general created havoc in the attacking third.
Of course, he’s still a young lad and there is a lot of room for improvement. But there is no substitute for experience. He will get more efficient as he learns and he will be wiser with his choices. Right now there is a feeling that he’s over-eager at times but I guess it comes with his age and enthusiasm. Unadulterated Joie de football?
Arsenal didn’t use their full-backs quite as much in an offensive role, which is also worth noting because the attackers supposedly given roles on the flanks kept drifting inside. In such a case one would expect the full-backs to bomb forward and provide width but there was so much joy down the middle, the players probably never felt the need to look wide.
Jenkinson was used in a conservative role when he got a run of games early in the season and that continued here.
The Spaniard played many more minutes but only 4 of his 16 passes in the attacking third of the pitch came after the sending off.
Difference between the first-half and the second-half
Arsenal attempted close to 400 passes in the first-half and just over 200 in the second period. Wilshere’s absence played it’s part as did the red card. But Diaby role is also worth exploring. The Frenchman’s touch was uncharacteristically loose and in general his play was quite disappointing (although he was useful in the penalty box when defending set-pieces). It’s quite possible he’s lacking match fitness but I also sense a degree of hesitancy in his game. Is he not confident in his abilities at this time? Is he wary of going into physical duels? Something’s not right and Wenger has a job to do to get him back to his best.
The Gunners didn’t have much to do defensively in the opening hour of the game. There were a couple of hopeful headers and one good chance that Fletcher couldn’t put on target.
After the red card it was hard for 10-men Arsenal, particularly the final 20 minutes. Sunderland got more bodies into the box and they were able to test Szczesny. But it was arguably the most inefficient attacking approach in the game and it could be countered by unwavering concentration and determination to attack the ball whenever possible. In recent games Arsenal have gifted goals through very casual unforced errors. It was good to see none of that in this game. The commitment and effort from the players was commendable but better structure can be helpful.
Difference between the attacking styles and tactics of the teams
When people call Arsenal one-dimensional, I wonder what they’d call a team like Sunderland. Zero-dimensional? Apart from cross-and-hope they had very little to offer. Their two best chances came from – 1) a mistake by Ramsey, although credit must also go to Sessegnon who was excellent; and 2) a handball by Fletcher that put Mertesacker’s clearance in his path.
Other than that it was just a few ooohs and aaaahs from the crowd as hopeful balls came into crowded areas. Granted, such tactics occasionally work against Arsenal, but if you want to figure out why Martin O’Neill’s side are in the bottom five for goals scored (bottom four at home), start with how utterly lacking in imagination their football is.
The following is a comparison of the crosses attempted by the two teams.
Arsenal just didn’t have to go wide while the hosts couldn’t do anything but go wide.
In fact, even at the end it could be argued that the visitors created better chances even with 10 men. Walcott hit the post when put through while Giroud and Cazorla found themselves in good positions more than once.
Those fixated with the short term and living in denial might argue that this game could easily have ended 1-1, and then this analysis would look daft.
But as Wenger says and I often repeat, the actual result of the game should not have a major influence on the analysis of the game. If Arsenal repeat this kind of football they’ll score three or four goals more often than they score one. If Sunderland repeat this they’ll be lucky to score one. Don’t believe me? Just look at the difference in goals scored by the two sides, and then compare the goals scored by the sides managed by these managers over the last few years.
The Gunners were inefficient while the Black Cats lacked ideas and creativity. Don’t let the tenseness of the game distract you from the actual quality of football played by either side.
It was a horrible game from the officials and both sides suffered. Sunderland had a valid claim for a penalty IMHO. But the hosts would also have been in trouble if the Ref had dealt with their overzealous physical play early on. Yes, there were some hard but fair tackles, but the number of fouls not called was just staggering. Cattermole could easily have been sent off early in the first-half for deliberate off-the-ball fouls. Ndiaye was often just grappling with his opponents. It wasn’t a nasty game per se, but Sunderland’s attempts to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm were evident and the referee’s impotence disappointing. He probably compensated for the penalty call by allowing Fletcher to have a free shot at goal, with only Szczesny to beat, after an obvious handball.
Szczesny: Made two or three very good saves late in the game. Flapped on a couple of occasions when he came for a cross and missed. Appreciable concentration and a good game on the whole.
Jenkinson: A game to forget for the young man. Wasn’t able to offer much in attack and didn’t do a good job of defending when he was challenged. More than anything it just shows how raw and inexperienced he is. Sometimes enthusiasm and energy cannot make up for underdeveloped game-intelligence.
Sagna: Exceptional in defending the balls hurled into the box, particularly late in the game. Early on, Fletcher and Co. did win some headers against him, but when things got tight at the end he either won the ball or did enough to put the opponent off. Distribution wasn’t up to his usual standard when he plays on the right but a quality effort in an unfamiliar role nonetheless.
Mertesacker: Another one who did well against balls put into the box. Often got into the right places and did enough to prevent clear chances. Should probably have done more to cover behind Monreal on a couple of occasions.
Monreal: Efficient passing game, usually got into good positions in attack and defence. Broke up some attacks and tackling was good when he was able to get to the ball but there were a couple of occasions when Sessegnon simply skipped past him. Could have conceded a penalty on another day. I liked the way he tracked the winger into the centre of the pitch. That led to the transition which resulted in Arsenal’s goal.
The central defenders had a tough time in the last 20 minutes or so and they did a good job marshalling the troops and attacking the ball. The full-backs can do better.
Arteta: Another typically understated effort that was more about making others look better. Did make clever use of fouls to break up play on a couple of occasions. To me that’s a sign of experience as he used the refs tendency to be lenient to his advantage. Would prefer if he never had to do that but if you can’t change the refs mind it’s best to use it skillfully.
Wilshere: Already discussed above.
Ramsey: Should probably have done better when Giroud’s through-ball found its way to him. Also must learn to protect the ball better. Work rate and energy were exceptional. Did a good job at right-back and in general defensive effort was commendable.
Cazorla: Should probably have covered his role in more depth earlier in the article but we’ve come to expect nothing less than top quality from the Spaniard. More of the same here. Took his goal well, could probably have done better with a couple of other chances. Was involved with most of Arsenal’s creative play in some form or the other. Did a fair amount of defensive work as well. Another one who worked his socks off.
Diaby: discussed above.
The midfield was excellent in this game. Their technical abilities stood out and they were able to impose their creative will over the physicality of their opponents. Exceptional physical effort from all those who played the full game.
Have already discussed the strikers, Giroud and Walcott, in detail above. Also want to note Giroud’s defensive contribution was superb.
Miquel had a couple of important touches deep in the Arsenal penalty box.
Wenger: This was much closer to how he’d want his side to play. I’ve mentioned before that Arsene hasn’t quite been sure of his best attacking and midfield options this season. Well, the system around the new players is still evolving but it’s come a long way from the early days.