Arsenal take the long trip to Sunderland tonight to face Martin O’Neill’s men on the freshly tilled grounds at the Stadium of Blight.
With just one very, very, (strangely) late loss in their last 7 matches together Arsenal don’t have a particularly poor League record against Sunderland. But with just three wins the Gunners don’t have a particularly good record either.
Still, Sunderland isn’t a bogey team in the same way that Bolton were so long ago, but the Black Cats epitomize everything that the Gunners have a hard time beating. Sunderland do a great job sitting back and keeping clean sheets. They are second in the League with 9 clean sheets out of 25 games but they have also let in 33 goals in the other 16 games.
Oddly, they have conceded 7 goals in the first 15 minutes of games, 7 in the first 15 minutes after the second half kicks off, and 7 in the final 15 minutes of games. In each of the other three 15 minute periods they have conceded just 4 goals (12 total).
This indicates a team that lacks concentration and if Arsenal can get at them in the opening quarter of an hour - show some real guts and go for the jugular early – it will force Sunderland to be more liberal and the result could be a high scoring game for Arsenal.
Arsenal played Sunderland on opening day and had 23 shots to Sunderland’s 4 so we know that the boys are going to get chances. Despite that bulk shots advantage, Sunderland forced two saves and Arsenal forced just three. That’s a shot on goals number that won’t be good enough tomorrow for Arsenal.
The Gunners need to do more than work the ball around the outside of the Sunderland area, they need to get midfielders into the box and cause trouble among the Sunderland lines. Cazorla should be well rested and if he can give an energetic and direct performance, he could cause real trouble. He also shoots from distance and forcing the keeper to make saves from stinging long-range shots can open up scoring chances for hungry forwards.
I’m interested to see who Arsene starts in the front three tomorrow. Conventional wisdom has the boss resting Gervinho, but the Ivorian was in fine form during the ACN and as I have documented was well rested during his trip to Africa compared to his teammates who have been pulling doubles in the League and FA Cups all January. Gervinho also has the ability to break down defenses in tight quarters so I would think him ideal for tomorrow’s match. Playing him on the right and Podolski on the left with Giroud in the middle would let Arsene bring Theo Walcott off the bench and terrify Sunderland for the last 15 minutes of the game.
Sadly, I don’t think Arsene will start Gervinho.
In the midfield, Arsene is already sounding the warning bells over Jack Wilshere getting burnt out. I agree and I would rest him tomorrow, starting Diaby, Arteta, and Cazorla instead. None of those three played in the mid week friendlies (much less Jack Wilshere’s gut-busting 90 minute stint) so they should be focused and ready to kick on for the purple and blue.
At the back, Arsenal shouldn’t have much to deal with in terms of frequency, but what they will see will be nothing but big chances for Sunderland as they will look to release Sessegnon and Fletcher with over the top balls early in the game. Fletcher is not the most graceful center forward in the League but he has 10 goals on 43 shots, all of them from open play, no headers, and all of them coming before the 60th minute (7 in the first half).
One player to watch out for is Danny Rose. He is the most fouled player in the Premier League, meaning that he draws more fouls than all the other players in the League. I say “most fouled” but the reality is that he’s quite light on his feet and has already been cautioned for diving this season. Must be something about them Tottenham boys. Other than that one stat, he’s very average, but look for him to try to get some slight fouls in and around the Arsenal box so that Seb Larsson can whip in a dangerous cross or two.
Unfortunately, Arsenal have a mini-injury-crisis brewing at center back. A crisis of their own making I might add. Vermaelen has been ruled out and Koscielny “must pass a test” on a recurring calf injury. I hate to sound like Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra but playing a barely fit Koscielny at Sunderland before the big FA Cup and Champions League games has shades of Santos at Olympiakos written all over it.
At least the fullback positions are covered. Arsene bought in the January market and with rumors strongly linking Santos to a loan back to Brazil the Gunners will be grateful for Nacho Monreal and his rather conservative approach to the position. On the other side of the pitch, Arsene has options and could start Carl Jenkinson tomorrow, why not? The rest of the back four is in disarray and Sanga had a torrid game for France in midweek.
The injuries are especially painful because Arsenal have the most error prone defense in the League (13 errors) and many of those errors have come from an uncertain and nervous back four. So, while I understand that people would like to see some pretty radical lineup changes (one person even mooting Sagna as center back) I think that even if Koscielny fails his fitness test, the Boss is going to opt for Squilaci or Miquel instead of some really experimental lineup.
Who would I pick to play center back? Well, I would pick that new center half we signed in January. You know, the one Arsenal bought to replace Johan Djourou? Michael Mancienne? Chico? Anybody Butsquillaci? Oh, the deal fell through? I guess there was a problem with his paperwork.
Regardless the injuries and the international break, Arsenal should have the quality and freshness to beat Sunderland. Same goes for the fact that they will release the Holsteins on the pitch tonight and that the undersoil heating will probably be turned off. Oh and if anyone’s wondering, Anthony Taylor is the referee tomorrow and he will probably let all sorts of fouls go that you wish he would call.
Given all that, Arsenal still have the talent to beat Sunderland and anything less than 3 points from a full-blooded Arsenal performance would be a real let down. Par for the course this season, but a let down none-the-less.