Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0: Tactical Analysis

Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0: Tactical Analysis

With Van Persie departing for Man Utd and the transfer of Song to Barcelona confirmed also, its easy to jump to conclusions regarding Arsenal’s prospects this season particularly when both players were reportedly involved in over 60% of Arsenal’s goal last season. A goalless draw at home to Sunderland is unlikely to silence the doubters either. Yet whilst this was a disappointing opening day draw for Arsenal, it was a game which offered glimpses of the potential within the squad for the campaign ahead.

For Sunderland, a dogged, resolute display which lacked attacking intent was rewarded with a  point which they will gratefully accept but Martin O’Neill is likely to be busy until the closure of the transfer window to bring some much-needed striking options to his squad.

Line Ups

Arsenal began with their now customary 4-3-3 formation with a twist. The front three featured three forwards and not the usual mix of two strikers and one more creative player. Gervinho and Walcott flanked Podolski who started centrally.

Jenkinson began at right back with a midfield trio of Arteta, Diaby and Cazorla.

Arsenal Starting Line Up

There were debuts for Podolski and Cazorla and later Giroud who arrived from the bench.

Sunderland opted for a defensive 4-5-1 formation with Sessegnon as the lone striker and supported provided by McClean and Campbell on the flanks.

Cuellar made his debut in central defence whilst Saha also made his debut as a second half substitute.

The Conditions

The opening game of the season at the Emirates was played in extremely hot conditions with weather forecasts suggesting temperatures approaching 30C locally. In such temperatures, the tempo of the game was always going to be lower than normal. Combined with a  pitch that was drying out despite being heavily watered and passing was never likely to be slick. Two aspects which would suit the game plan of Sunderland and would hinder Arsenal as they struggled to build momentum throughout.

Sunderland Starting Line Up

Sunderland Approach

Sunderland entered the game with a very defensive approach, seeking to exploit Arsenal on the counter attack.

They dropped off their opponents and regrouped, only pressing when Arsenal entered their half of the pitch. The midfield trio of Larsson, Colback and especially Cattermole worked hard to close down their opponents and remain compact and close to their defensive line preventing Arsenal from enjoying any time or space on the ball especially when they attempted to move between the lines.

Sunderland, like so many teams in the Premiership, deployed a player on each post when defending corner kicks. Despite Arsenal corners being cleared, the two players on the posts prevent Sunderland from pushing out quickly and Arsenal simply regained possession and applied more pressure to their opponents defence.

The natural progression of such an approach was that Sunderland offered little in an attacking sense for much of the game. They had the best opportunity of the first half via McClean early on when he was able to exploit the gap between Mertesacker and Vermaelen requiring Szczesny to produce a good save. A few minutes later, a further chance arrived via a long range shot from Colbeck following good work down their right side. After this brief flurry, Arsenal were able to limit their opponent’s counter attacks. The full backs stayed a little deeper until the game developed and Arsenal gained a greater degree of control.

Given this outlook, the game would revolve around Arsenal attempted to combat this.

Arsenal Defence

Much has been written about the performance of the Arsenal defence over the past few season, much of it negative and as outlined here, it’s not always the most objective of criticism. The appointment of Steve Bould as assistant manager should make a positive contribution to the defensive aspects of Arsenal. Leaving aside the statistical aspects, there were both positive and negative defensive elements on display.

Mertesacker having returned from injury looked assured at the back and was happy to step forward with possession of the ball leading to 93% pass completion in the opponents half.

Vermalen was yet again drawn out of position and committed a foul about 7 yards inside the Sunderland half as half time approached when there was no requirement for him to pursue his opponent. This tendency in his game is well-known and it has to be addressed or it will be exploited by higher quality opponents.

Jenkinson continues to look uncomfortable when deployed at right back. There is limited attacking threat from him and he does have a tendency to pass inside when he receives the ball. He was often positioned quite deep and narrow on the right and it was notable how Sunderland seemed to press him aggressively early on, perhaps identifying him as being a weak link in terms of his technical ability on the ball. His options were limited though with Walcott operating high up the pitch. Both full backs were disconnected from their respective wingers to a certain extent throughout the match.

Arsenal Moving Forward

Arsenal dominated possession but far too much of it was in front of Sunderland. They did not turn the Sunderland defence enough particularly in the first half. Gervinho made a number of runs don the left but his decision-making remains questionable.

Both Gervinho and Walcott were disconnected from their full backs. Both adopted high starting positions but their direct nature was going to produce limited impact against a deep-lying defence.

Arsenal overwhelmingly dominated possession but as is soften seen, they actually rarely troubled Mingolet with attempts on target.

Arsenal

Sunderland

Possession

70.1%

29.9%

Passes

702

294

Accuracy

91%

76%

Shots

13

3

Shots on Target

3

2

As the game wore on and Sunderland tired, Arsenal began to enjoy more space on the ball with their opponent increasingly stretched but were still unable to take advantage. The one clear-cut chance for Arsenal fell for the substitute Giroud via a Cazorla pass but he knocked the ball wide.

Santi Cazorla

The deep defence employed by Sunderland was aided by the Arsenal selection which included Gervinho and Walcott. Neither had any real space to move into and Walcott offered very little until the game began to open up in the second half.

With Podolski having a relatively quiet debut, Cazorla provided the creative spark for Arsenal. Cazorla was often the focus for Arsenal’s best moments of the game although you could suggest he was trying a little too hard on occasion.

Santi Cazorla

Total Passes

77

Total Passes Accuracy

94%

% Passes Forward

31%

Final Third Passes

40

Final Third Passes Accuracy

90%

Chances Created

7

Shots at Goal

4

And it’s not just the attacking elements which Cazorla can undertake. He made 3 tackles during the game all of which were successful and he won 54% of his ground duels. It would appear he has made a swift and effortless switch to the Premiership.

There is still much room for improvement though. At club level, Cazorla has been used as an interiore, drifting laterally in an attacking midfield position. His ability to pull opponents out of position can be maximised by the likes of Diaby making surging runs forward into the space vacated by Cazorla. This occurred a few times in the game but can be developed. Similarly, Cazorla is not used to dropping into deeper positions which may be required of him at Arsenal. This aspect of his game will need to be improved as Arsenal favoured a midfield trio which rotated last season.

Conclusion

A valuable point gained for Sunderland but striking reinforcements must be brought in. Sessegnon operates more effectively as a second striker and reliance upon the aging legs of Saha could be a risky option.

A frustrating afternoon for Arsenal and one which they will hope does not become the norm as the season progresses. Wenger lamented the a lack of creativity post match. Also worth noting was his comment about lack of “balance”. The formation was almost completely symmetrical yet the balance was not right. Further proof that asymmetrical formations can provide much better balance.  The passing of Arsenal was slow at times and a high tempo was never sustained for any significant duration with the weather possibly being a contributing factor here. There were sporadic patches of good play but new relationships need time to build.

Ignore the likely tabloid headlines regarding impending doom at the Emirates. There was enough on show to demonstrate that Arsenal can successfully navigate a course following the sale of Van Persie and Song particularly if Cazorla continues to build upon an impressive debut.