Arsenal V Sunderland | Then and Now


Off late I have been looking into statistical comparisons as they are offering insights into the way Arsenal have been evolving after the plethora of changes during the summer.

The Sunderland fixture provided interesting numbers to munch on. The following table provides select stats from Sunderland’s visit to the Emirates last Sunday and the corresponding fixtures from the previous season.

The improvement shown by the Gunners in various duels is quite obvious. Success rates for Ground and Aerial 50-50s as well as tackles shows substantial increase. Obviously, for Sunderland those numbers take a hit. All tackles aren’t matched for some reason that is beyond me but it must be down to do with the way they are defined. Still the contrast is strong enough.

One can argue that the Gunners have worked hard and improved or that Sunderland are really struggling at the moment as reflected by their position in the table. Certainly, my impression – based on vague memories – was that the fixture last season was a tougher battle than the more recent one.

The passing and other stats in the lower half of the above table don’t back this up completely but there are some indications. The visitors had a notably lower interceptions count while Arsenal created a higher number of chances.  By and large though, both teams produced eerily similar performances.

A cursory glance at some individual statistics suggests that the similarity goes deeper than the macro-level figures. For instance, last Sunday Rosicky spent 77 minutes on the pitch and completed 50 of his 60 attempted passes. Curiously, in the corresponding fixture Diaby spent the same amount of time on the field and completed 50 of his 59 passes!

In both games the central defenders attempted passes in the mid-sixties with comparable success rates. The central striker (Bendtner and RvP) were in the mid-thirties. Song completed 53 of his 64 attempts at a pass. Denilson in a similar role completed 44 of his 54 passes in 62 minutes while his replacement, Chamakh – of course in a different role, added 8 more in the remaining time to bring the number close to Song.

Arshavin started on the left last year and managed 49 total passes. This year Gervinho and Arshavin combined fell short of that figure by ten. More interestingly, Walcott’s 32 fell way short of Nasri’s 58 total passes in the same position last season.

This adds to the point discussed in my previous article that Arsenal’s wide players have a more direct style this year and aren’t contributing as much to the possession part of the game. And as discussed in that article extensively, the balancing factor is coming from the midfield. After all, despite the lower contribution from the wide areas the total number of passes isn’t falling short.

Arteta, with 78 total passes on Sunday, eclipsed Wilshere who attempted 54 last year in a similar role. That difference roughly compensates for the gap between Walcott and Nasri.

It seems to me that Arteta has been given the responsibility of compensating for the relative lack of technical qualities in the wide areas. This might be forcing the Spaniard to move all over the pitch to offer himself as a passing option. It would also explain his relative lack of creativity, something many fans had been expecting from the former Everton midfielder. One could say that Arteta has been given the job of keeping the Gunners ticking by being the go-to guy.

This data is not enough to form any sort of conclusion as to Arteta’s role but we are getting a better picture with each analysis.

Broadly speaking, it seems to me that Wenger’s biggest priority is to have a team that moves the ball fast. According to Jack Colback, Arsenal – despite all their struggles- are still moving the ball faster than Chelsea. For the Gunners, attack and defence are intricately linked with that ball movement as that forces opponents back.

At the moment the team isn’t translating possession dominance into results in some games. If that continues, Wenger will have to find a different approach. It probably won’t be a change in emphasis away from possession but one of the direct wide players might have to be sacrificed for a technical or defensive player so that the midfield has lower ball retention responsibilities and more freedom to express themselves.

If Arsene does manage to find a balance between creativity and defensive solidity with this approach, he will have filled the void left by Fabregas via a subtle change in tactics. I’d hazard to say even Le Prof is learning with each game and doesn’t quite have the solution just yet. Let’s enjoy the journey with him.


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