Arsenal left the Stadium of Light as victors after a turgid affair with a resurgent Sunderland side. Arsenal never really looked on top form, failing to maintain a fluid passing rhythm against a Sunderland side who seemed content with playing for the draw, attacking only with quick breaks, a failure on O’Neill’s part as a forward line with the likes of McClean, Sessegnon and Campbell could have asked a few questions of the Arsenal defence.
The Gunners, who showed one change from the side that crushed Blackburn 7-1 with Bacary Sagna finally returning to the starting line-up. Arsenal remained on the front foot as Alex Song and Mikel Arteta dominated the early midfield exchanges, but Tomas Rosicky and the front three of Chamberlain, Walcott and Van Persie were denied space to do anything of real creativity.
The first half was a case of Sunderland having an answer for any question Arsenal seemed capable of posing. O’Neill knows how to organise a team and the first half was a dire affair, not helped by a pitch that looked as if it had held a midnight Weight Watchers rave. The second half saw something that Wenger has often been criticised for the lack of, clever tactical substitutions from Wenger, granted though that the first one was forced.
Sagna had raced back to nullify a Sunderland break, passed it to Mertesacker who then collapsed in a heap clutching his ankle. McClean raced on and rifled an excellent shot in the bottom corner past Szczesny. Wenger then cleverly put Ramsey on for the injured German, dropping Song into centre-back. This changed the shape of the team into more of the 1-2 in midfield we played at the start of the season, with Arteta acting as a pivotal defensive midfielder. This helped the team apply more pressure on Sunderland and the extra attacking body of Ramsey brought our first goal with a tricky finish from the Welshman.
The other two changes were Arshavin and Henry on for Chamberlain and Walcott. Chamberlain hadn’t looked as dangerous as in previous games, something that has to be expected from an 18 year old, consistency usually takes years to establish. Walcott looked as to have reverted to his poor run of form that had lifted in recent weeks. Arshavin has the ability to craft space for himself and it showed as he created two chances from three corners, the final one the inch-perfect assist for Henry’s winner.
Individually, there were few outstanding performers. Arteta, just like last week, had some extraordinary stats to his name.
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In one season, he’s worked himself into the upper echelons of Europe’s midfield with the fourth highest passes per game average of 80.8, behind Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Pirlo. With 116 passes. 76 more than the nearest Sunderland player, his tidy performance meant that Arsenal could mantain the pressure on the Sunderland back-line, his passing accuracy in the final third was vital to this as well.
Rosicky put another dynamic performance, despite the fact he was denied a lot of space. His ability in tight situations might actually make him a better choice in matches like this than Aaron Ramsey. The fact he won possession 6 times in midfield and made three key interceptions also makes him a great choice when teams are playing counter-attacking football.
This was a vital three points for Arsenal and they will be delighted have started this challenging week with 3 points. O’Neill and Sunderland on the other hand, will be disappointed they didn’t pose more of a threat to Sunderland and the FA Cup tie between the two sides next week should be an interesting game. I’ll leave you with some stats from our Opta powered stats centre.