A tough challenge, made harder by individual mistakes and tactical issues, was eventually conquered through individual attacking quality, collective resilience, and a generous dose of luck.
Before the game there was news that Mertesacker had not travelled with the side but Cazorla’s absence was an unpleasant surprise. Arsenal lost the fulcrum of defensive thought and a player capable of changing the game in an instant.
Even then the starting line up was fairly strong as was evidenced by the performance of the first half and, of course, the result. The Gunners dominated possession, created the best chances, spurned most of them, but still lead by a goal at half time. There were fleeting moments that showed Sunderland could come back into this game – Diakite hitting the bar or Altidore’s shot on the turn, for instance – but most of the times their attacks were snuffed out comfortably.
Things changed dramatically in the second half. In order to discuss the differences I’m going to compare the changes we saw from both sides.
From Disjointed to Compact and Purposeful
The Black Cats played with a fairly attacking mindset throughout the game (not based on possession but directness) but in the opening period their game was based on hitting the ball long to a striker and then pushing players up in support. This rarely worked because Arsenal were able to win the first or the second ball, and usually had sufficient players to support the defence and transition to attacks of their own. Furthermore, the hosts were stretched vertically as a result of this approach because their midfield was pushing in one direction before having to turn back and chase.
Arsenal’s first goal came after a long kick by Westwood found the head of Fletcher. The hosts could only string together a couple of passes before the Gunners won the ball back and moved it forward. The Black Cats tried to compress play higher up the pitch but it didn’t work for them. Note that the ball landed at Gibbs’ feet after a moment of pin-ball where their central defender Diakite had the last touch well inside the Arsenal half.
This left spaces behind and the Gunners pounced on them with Özil and and Giroud giving a lesson in technique and clinical finishing to give Arsenal the lead.
In the 14th minute, the opening for Walcott again came from a Sunderland move that was broken down, this time by a terrific tackle by Ramsey. The visitors consistently found space in front and behind the home defence and this led to numerous chances. Better finishing would have settled this game in the first half.
In the second half, Di Canio’s men retained their offensive mindset but changed their approach and adjusted their shape. They were a lot more compact and played with a greater sense of purpose in that they contested for many of the balls that were easy for the Gunners in the first period. It showed in the way they pressed Arsenal higher up the pitch and denied them any space. Even though Arsenal still dominated possession, their creativity was clearly curtailed with virtually no through-ball options available.
Moreover, instead of kicking the ball long to the attackers they were now making one or two passes in the build up to take the ball forward in a more controlled manner. This also gave their strikers more time to run into space. Altidore and Fletcher weren’t looking to get in front of the defenders to win long balls, they were now looking for spaces and making runs into vacant areas to stretch the defence.
Look at the passes played into the attacking third in the two halves. Note how many originate deep in their own half in the first period but virtually none in the second half. Since they were closer to each other and looking for spaces, Sunderland’s attacking third passing accuracy went up from around 48 percent in the first half to 67 in the second.
Looking at Steven Fletcher’s dashboard for each half explains this further.
He was involved in numerous aerial duels in the first 45 and lost most of them. Most of his passes were wayward too. After the break he had fewer duels to contend and made some influential passes. This is not a case of a player suddenly transforming into a game changer. The difference was that his teammates were closer to him in the second period and he was moving into spaces, which gave him a fraction more time to pick his passes. In the first half he was isolated and either had to duel with defenders who were better at attacking the aerial ball or forced into attempting tougher passes into spaces controlled by the Gunners.
Using Space Down Arsenal’s Left Flank
The hosts also benefitted from extra space down their right flank as the Gunners failed to cover their left effectively. More on how Arsenal gave away that territory a little later, first let’s look at what Sunderland did.
The following image compares passes received by Altidore in the two halves.
In the first half, the American striker was receiving most of the passes in a central area just in front of the visiting defenders. But he moved into wider areas a bit more often in the second period or dropped a little deeper into a pocket just in front of the defenders.
The impact of this space is even more pronounced when we see Adam Johnson’s dashboard.
The Englishman saw a lot more of the ball and was able to influence proceedings on a number of occasions as he won a penalty, created a couple of good chances and generally offered a safe passing option to his teammates in the middle.
Since there was space on that flank, Sunderland could often just knock the ball in the general direction with the certainty that one of their players will pick it up. Almost every attack came down that side. Even though the Sagna-Altidore tussle, the most controversial moment of the game, came down Arsenal’s right side, the roots of that were sown by the play down the left as moments earlier many players were pulled to that side. This created the space on the right which made it easy for them to move the ball from central defender to striker in a matter of seconds and with a couple of passes.
It was easy for the Gunners in the opening period and they played superbly. The hosts were disjointed, leaving large gaps all over the pitch, and Wenger’s side made full use of these gaps. Only the quality of finishing was poor. The defenders and midfielders also did a great job of winning the ball back quickly once it was kicked long.
One of the features of Arsenal’s play in the first half was the seamless interchange of positions between Wilshere, who’d started on the left, and Özil, who’d started centrally. They didn’t really have to do much to help the defence but Jack was getting into decent positions in front of Gibbs when Sunderland had the ball, which meant that space was usually occupied by Arsenal and not open for easy passes.
In the second half, inexplicably, Wilshere moved into the central role and just stayed there. This was a problem in many ways.
Firstly, it reduced the fluidity of the side. Wilshere received 12 passes from Gibbs, 10 of which came in the first half. Similarly, he received 11 from Özil in total but just 2 in the second period. Wilshere made 13 passes to Özil but 10 of those were in the first half.
Secondly, it reduced the opportunities the German had of influence the attack through the middle where he thrives while the Englishman had a very limited driving influence in congested spaces. Arsenal’s record signing attempted 53 passes in the first period but only 26 in the second. Even if we accept that he’d have dropped his level physically and add the fact that he was taken off 10 minutes early, that difference is too big for the team’s most potent attacking player.
Finally, with Özil on the flank Gibbs received less cover. It’s not that Wilshere possesses a great defensive mind but he is more used to playing in deeper areas and had done a fair amount of defensive work at Bolton on the left flank. He was getting into useful areas in the first half, Özil wasn’t in the second. That task seemed too unnatural for the German, particularly in his first game for the club.
Effectively, this single change had a big effect on the Gunners in offensive and defensive terms and it created the space that Sunderland exploited. I have no idea why this happened, or why Wilshere wasn’t asked to move back to the flank. Wenger did take Özil off and bring Vermaelen on to strengthen that flank but that was much later in the game.
Variety in Attack
The good news for Arsenal fans was that the Gunners had multiple attacking options. In the first half many of the attacks came from quick transitions with combination play and one-touch passing enabling chance creation. In the second period space was limited and the players needed patience and guile.
Think back to the number of chances that were created for Theo in the first half and how often balls were played in behind the defence. That didn’t happen in the second period.
The second goal came after a spell of sustained pressure. Arsenal had Sunderland pinned back for a few minutes without creating a gilt-edged opening. Even when the goal came it wasn’t from an obvious chance. Up until the time Ramsey produced that sweetly-timed volley, it didn’t look like Sunderland were under serious threat. Sunderland might have felt they were under pressure but controlling it defensively but that one moment of exceptional and decisive quality caught them by surprise.
The third goal was a work of art – meticulously crafted and a joy to behold. Interestingly, it came from one of the few long balls lumped forward as Westwood aimed for Altidore. Sagna won the aerial duel, as he usually does, and from that moment on Arsenal had around 48 seconds of possession and strung together 14 passes before Ramsey slotted it home. Everyone except Flamini and Jenkinson got on the ball.
This ability to score such goals makes me feel Arsenal would have won this game even if the Altidore goal had stood. It might have been different if Sagna had been sent off.
The way Martin Atkinson handled the Sagna-Altidore grappling match was poor. I can understand that he blew the whistle because it had gone on too long. But if he gives a foul it had to be a red card. The referee was generally too lenient and Arsenal got lucky.
I don’t agree with the argument that the American was also fouling Sagna. He had no need to and was just trying to get away. That’s just the kind of thing Wenger (or most managers for that matter) says to diffuse the situation by further complicating it, if that makes any sense.
I do, however, feel that people should not assume Altidore would have scored if the whistle had not been blown. The striker clearly wanted to play on but it’s quite possible that Szczesny and Koscielny didn’t give everything in an attempt to stop him because they’d heard the whistle. I heard it on TV so this is not unimaginable. The manager and coaches should be livid with Koscielny if he says the whistle didn’t influence him because he stopped for a while instead of sprinting back towards his goal line. And if he did hear the whistle why did he subsequently attempt to keep the ball out of the net?
It’s a complicated sequence of events but Sunderland were unlucky and Arsenal need to do much better to deal with such moments, that much was clear.
Szczesny: No fault for the penalty. Collection and distribution was decent, didn’t have that much to do despite Sunderland pressure in the second half. Needs a stronger hand when one-v-one with the striker, this is not the first time his arm was too weak to divert the ball away from goal.
Jenkinson: Excellent assist. Good energy and work rate. Saw a lot of the ball and usually made useful, if conservative, choices. He needs to keep it simple and compact, which is what he did for the most part.
Sagna: Has this tendency to get too tight to the striker and then gets rolled. On the flank it works because there is only one side the attacker can go as the touch line helps but in central defence it can be disastrous. Was strong in aerial duels but didn’t always get in the right spots to challenge for them, particularly in the box. Passing was safe and reliable.
Koscielny: He made some exceptional last-man tackles last season but during the course of his Arsenal career he’s also given away some penalties. It’s part of his game and makes him good but he needs to be clever about it. Adam Johnson has a very average right foot and he was going away from goal towards his weaker side. A defender needs to know these kind of things instinctively. And if he had to go to ground a better option would be to go with his right foot to make a block rather than a tackle with the left foot tucked in. This would all but eliminate the chance of contact. As discussed above, he should have been covering behind Szczesny when Altidore broke free. Passing was good, presence in the box could have been better.
Gibbs: Quality pass to pick out Özil’s run. He had a good first half but struggled in the second once a big chunk of space opened up in front of him. Another player who saw a lot of the ball and made sensible use of it.
The defenders did a good job of isolating the attackers and breaking moves quickly in the first period. They had a tougher time in the second half when support wasn’t consistent and the central defenders made major individual errors.
Arsenal’s zonal marking on set-pieces was a source of concern.
Ramsey: MotM again. Two excellent goals, tremendous energy and work rate, and noteworthy defensive contribution. Made the team better all over the pitch.
Özil: Top class first half, lived up to the high expectations. Even the Sunderland fans would have enjoyed some of his movement and passing. Wasn’t able to influence the game as much in the second but still played a crucial part in the third goal. It’s important that his defensive responsibilities are minimized.
Flamini: Work rate was good and he covers a lot of ground to help the team, particularly the defence. Doesn’t quite have the ability to handle pressure and bring the ball out from the defence on a consistent basis. One example was seen when he was dispossessed in the build-up to the corner that led to the penalty. Also needs to check his tendency to commit fouls. That Gardner set-piece that almost went in came from one of his overenthusiastic challenges.
Wilshere: Had a good first half where he moved in and out of spaces to keep the attacks flowing. Needs better end product in the final third. As discussed above, seemingly tired, totally inexplicable second half performance.
The midfield was delightfully dominant in the first half and proved decisive in the second even when they weren’t at their best.
Walcott: I’ve noted his tendency to miss chances since pre-season. Needs a couple of games where he takes these chances to get back in the groove, and quickly. It can easily become a thing that starts affecting his confidence and that of his teammates. Good thing is he’s making the right runs and is on the same page as the service providers.
Giroud: Brilliant again. How he’s matured. The flicks and tricks that looked like lazy attempts last season are now beginning to come good. Took his chance really well and the pass to Ramsey was well executed. Equally important was that ability to drop into space to receive the ball from Özil, a shining example of his excellent movement.
The attacking players had different kinds of impact on the game. Walcott’s runs bolstered the feeling of dominance in the first half even if the end product was frustrating. Giroud was consistently influential.
Subs: Good to see Vermaelen back. Congratulations to Akpom on his debut. Must have been a big day for him even if it just seemed a time-wasting technicality. Monreal just had a few moments.
Wenger: The problems in defence, when the balance of the team is not quite right, are still there. As are catastrophic, entirely avoidable, individual choices by key players. Don’t know why he didn’t ask Wilshere to move back to the left when the team was struggling. Or he could have taken the youngster off and introduced Vermaelen earlier.Follow @goonerdesi