Arsenal earn an important three points with a slender victory which should have been more comfortable than the score-line, and the last ten or so minutes of the game, suggested.
When these two sides met early in the season, Arsenal dominated the game but failed to find the breakthrough against a deep-lying Sunderland side. A similar pattern developed here with Arsenal in the ascendency and enjoying 61% possession but this time they found a way past the inspired goalkeeping of Mignolet.
Martin O’Neill brought club captain Lee Cattermole straight back into the side after missing out on the last three games.
Seb Larsson dropped to the bench along side new signing Danny Graham, O’Neill retaining faith with Sessegnon who operated more to the right hand side than directly behind lone striker Fletcher in a slightly tweaked 4-5-1 formation.
With Koscielny falling ill pre-match, Arsene Wenger was forced into a late reshuffle in defence. Sagna moved into central defence with Jenkinson coming in at right back. Cazorla returned to the starting eleven following his position on the substitute bench against Stoke.
Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Walcott and Cazorla both very narrow and Jack Wilshere as the central point of this attacking trident.
With a chance at either end in the opening minute, it was easy to miss the most important part of this exchange; the caution for Lee Cattermole for a reckless challenge on Ramsay. Although he departed at half time carrying a slight injury, collecting an early caution severely hindered a player who plays on the edge of allowable boundaries with some of his challenges. With his approach considerably tempered, Cattermole was unable to compete as he would have hoped leaving Arsenal that additional moment of time and space on the ball. It was one of the factors that enabled them to dictate the opening period.
Arsenal Narrow, Wilshere Central, Sunderland Deep
Arsenal were very narrow in the first half with Cazorla moving in from the left and Walcott doing likewise from the right. It was not unusual for Walcott to be the most advanced player with Giroud often dropping slightly deeper during the build up phase.
This movement of Giroud could have been a deliberate ploy to try to create space. Sunderland were always good to sit deep and narrow against Arsenal. With Giroud moving towards midfield, the intention may have been to pull forward Sunderland’s central defenders and make them follow the Frenchman. This opens up a pocket of space for Walcott to exploit and he was certainly far more central throughout the first half for someone notionally deployed on the right.
With both Cazorla and Walcott drifting infield, it places an onus upon the full backs to push higher up the pitch to offer genuine width. This had limited success for Arsenal with Jenkinson providing little attacking intent, understandable to a degree given his late inclusion in the side and to offer more cover to Bacary Sagna who was deputising at centre back. If the full backs do push higher, it requires the defensive midfielders to be sufficiently mobile and cover out wide. It was why Arsenal altered their starting formation slightly.
Arsenal have used three in midfield throughout this season with a 4-3-3 formation but against Sunderland the side switched to a 4-2-3-1 with Arteta and Ramsay being used as a double pivot. Arteta and Ramsay would provide the platform for Arsenal to build attacks enabling Jack Wilshere to push higher.
Wilshere was at the centre of all Arsenal’s play in the first half.
Wilshere completed 37 passes from 47 attempted and 88% of these were in the Sunderland half of the pitch. By being more advanced, he created three chances, the joint highest on the pitch although he failed to have any shots at goal. Perhaps an area that could be developed further in his game.
The higher positioning does mean he is less involved in the defensive side of the game and he failed to make any tackles although he won four of his eight ground duels. In a game with relatively few fouls, Wilshere was challenged illegally twice whilst committing just one foul himself.
The deployment of Wilshere as the most advanced of the central midfielders is something that Wenger should look to encourage for the remainder of the season. His surging forward runs can help create openings but also limit his commiting rash tackles at times in deeper positions.
In some respects the narrow Arsenal style assisted Sunderland. Even allowing for their sharp and intricate passing, moves often broke down around the edge of the box where Sunderland were able to contain Arsenal through sheer weight of numbers at times.
As in the game earlier this season, Sunderland were content to drop off and regain their position in their own half, only pressing Arsenal when the Gunners entered their territory. It was noticeable that even if a Sunderland attack failed in the Arsenal half, Sunderland players would not press their opponent, simply getting back into position as quickly as possible to limit the potential for being caught out during transitions. Sunderland fell back to a 4-5-1 formation but the flip side of that was Fletcher was often very isolated in attack and the Black Cats were slow to provide support when they did break forward. Sunderland were too focussed on retaining position.
Yet when they did break forward, there was cause for optimism. There was space to progress particularly via Sessegnon on the right taking advantage of Monreal’s high position and lack of defensive cover from Cazorla. One early moment saw Sessegnon beat Monreal but Szezcsny saved the resulting shot. After that, there were some promising moments from Sessegnon but he failed to produce.
The only goal of the game was delivered in the 35th minute and was the product of both Sunderland and Arsenal’s systems. Sunderland had few players in an advanced position to receive the ball and the Arsenal double pivot did their job effectively, regaining possession and launching an attack.
Cattermole initially did well to intercept a loose pass from Arsenal but when in possession, his options were limited. There were only two team mates in more advanced positions despite Cattermole intercepting well inside his own half of the pitch. Sessegnon was moving towards the halfway line whereas Fletcher was in the Arsenal half. A pass towards the Scottish Internationalist would have been speculative forcing Cattermole to seek out Sessegnon.
The Frenchman was quickly closed down and conceded possession with Wilshere moving forward, evading two challenges whilst Cattermole was unable to attempt a challenge due to the potential for receiving a second caution if he mis-timed it. Walcott set up Cazorla who drove the ball home.
The Spanish Internationalist arrived at the Emirates just prior to the closure of the transfer window with little knowledge surrounding him other than his departure from Malaga was a financial necessity for the stricken Andalusian side. Any concerns over his quality should be allayed his nine Spanish Caps. Only the form of Jordi Alba is preventing him
A product of the Osasuna cantera, Nacho Monreal spent five years as first choice left back at Osasuna before left his home club in June 2011 to join the revolution taking place on the coast at Malaga.
Monreal made 45 appearances scoring one goal for Malaga during his 18 month stay at La Rosaleda displacing Eliseu at left back and forcing the Portuguese player to a left midfield berth.
There is often conjecture over whether foreign players will be able to adapt to the more physical nature of the Premier League. It’s become something of a cliché now due to the infamous quote by Andy Gray revolving around Stoke on a wet winter evening. If anyone has the same doubts over Monreal, they should consider visiting Osasuna in winter. It’s not a particularly appealing place to play football with a hostile crowd sitting on top of a tight pitch and the home side playing a traditionally British style of game; long ball and an aggressive, pressing style in the face of the opposition.
It’s why there should be no qualms about Monreal being able to handle the physical aspect of the game. This is a player who can take of himself and is not afraid to put himself about if required but retains a high level of discipline committing an average of just one foul per game this season for Malaga whilst also weighing in with two assists.
His two appearances for Malaga in the Champions League ensures he will need to wait until next season to make his European début for the Gunners.
Monreal made four tackles in the game and all were successful. He also won 50% of his ground duels. His passing was superb throughout with 43 successful passes from his 45 attempts which included 35% of his passes in the final third, testament to his ability to perform at both ends of the pitch.
He conceded one foul on Sessegnon early in the game and otherwise looked assured. Given time, he should continue to develop at left back and provide a significant challenge to Kieran Gibbs for the starting position.
Arsenal continued to create and squander some very good openings and when Jenkinson was dismissed for his second caution of the game, it was inevitable that Sunderland would enjoy a period of more constructive play and create some openings. That Sunderland did not score was perhaps not surprising but that Steven Fletcher had three good chances and failed to convert any, was.
With Sunderland pushing further forward and Arsenal reduced to 10 men, there was more space on the pitch which provided Cazorla with the opportunity to shine but Arsenal continued to be profligate with the chances they were creating. Giroud and Diaby shot narrowly wide whilst Walcott struck the post.
A late rally from Sunderland brought a number of potential openings including two excellent saves from Szezcsny until the dying seconds when Bramble really should have snatched a last gasp equaliser following a corner kick but somehow contrived to prod the ball wide. Arsenal were forced into a total of fifty clearances in the game. The side still panic when placed under pressure from an aerial bombardment.
Successive defeats for Sunderland and the side are not yet clear of the relegation zone. The early part of March will be crucial for the side. Games against Fulham, QPR and Norwich will determine if the side will casting nervous glances over their shoulder for the remainder of the campaign or if they will be comfortably positioned in mid-table. Against these sides, Sunderland need to display a greater level of ambition.
Arsenal continue in their pursuit of a top four finish trailing neighbours Spurs and Chelsea by four and five points respectively. An awkward fixture for the Gunners has been navigated successfully with some quality football produced in doing so. If they are to secure a top four position, Arsenal need to move towards their best form in the closing stages of the season.
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