Tag Archives: Sunderland v. Arsenal


Tactics Preview – Sunderland v. Arsenal: defend as a unit

By Naveen Maliakkal

Sunderland’s 4-1-4-1

While Sunderland have attempted to exert greater control on their matches through possession earlier this season their loss to Southampton may help to push them towards a much less ambitious approach in their match against Arsenal. They may play in their same 4-1-4-1 formation, but the system will probably be one more similar to those used by quite a few of Arsenal’s opponents.

Instead of looking to control the game with the ball, Sunderland will look to control the 30 meters in front of their goal. This deep-defending approach will probably involve a physical trio of midfielders. This means that more technically-gifted players like Sebastian Larsson and Jordi Gomez will probably not play in central midfield. Instead, it seems more likely that Lee Clattermole will play the deepest midfield position with Jack Rodwell and Liam Birdcutt not too far ahead of him. The trio in midfield will probably stay tight and rough up Arsenal’s midfielders, hoping to win the ball and setting their side on the counter-attack.

With Steven Fletcher at center forward, Sunderland have a player who has won 5.4 aerial duels per 90 minutes, according to Whoscored.com, with a success rate of about 43%. With their willingness to use Fletcher as an aerial threat, Sunderland have some choices to make out wide. On the right, they could choose to play Sebastian Larsson. While he may not provide the speed of Adam Johnson or the volume of dribbling of William Buckley, he can create chances with his technical ability, both on set-pieces and in open play. Given Arsenal’s propensity to push both fullbacks up to create width in attack¹ Larsson could find himself in plenty of space on Sunderland’s counter-attacks, free to play long diagonal passes to Fletcher or Johnson on the left. In this sense, Sunderland could use Larsson much the way Netherlands used Danny Blind at left-back during the 2014 World Cup, particularly in their demolition of Spain, as a kind of wide playmaker. Combine this potential for devastation in open-play and his ability on set-pieces, and he represents the greatest danger to Arsenal with the ball.

Arsenal Need to Defend Better as a Unit

Some may focus on Arsenal’s defensive issues as problems at the position of holding midfielder and the nature of fullback usage in attack; however, I would like to highlight some of the problems Arsenal have defensively further up the pitch.

Focusing on last week’s debacle against Hull City, we will join the game at around the 15:24 mark, as Hull’s goalkeeper throws the ball out to a teammate. Jack Wilshere pushes up, forcing a pass and then chases after the pass. While ball-chasing is a terrible way to defend² Wilshere does force a pass towards the sideline and then the ball moves to Elmohamady.

Elmohamady moves the ball back to the right center back. From this point on, Arsenal make what seems like quite a few errors. Pausing the play at the 15:34 mark, we see that Arsenal have the makings of a pressing trap with Alexis Sanchez (up top), Jack Wilshere, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in position to collapse on the ball while keeping the players unavailable to the man on the ball, by running at the ball in such a fashion that the passing lane remains closed/rather small (keeping their opponents in their shadows). With the sideline providing another defender, Arsenal should look to pounce on this opportunity to force a turnover.

press damn you

At the 15:37 mark, Sanchez finds himself behind the Hull’s deepest midfielder. If a pass is made into the midfielder, Sanchez can quickly attack the man on the ball. Since Sanchez has that player covered, Wilshere should attack the ball, with Oxlade-Chamberlain joining him, bending his run to keep Elmohamady in his shadow, so to deny the pass to the wingback. Now the man on the ball could play the ball across the field, but Welbeck, playing a free safety role, appears in position to challenge a pass to the far-side center back or the far-side wingback. Such a press, if executed properly, at worst, leads to a back pass to the keeper.


Not all of the positioning is proper, though. Santi Cazorla has made an odd choice during this passage of play. With Arsenal playing a 4-1-4-1 defensively, Cazorla plays far too deep, looking to stay between Diame and the Arsenal goal. This caution seems like something some want to see from Arsenal. The problem with this particular kind of caution is that it leads to Arsenal having fewer resources to attack the ball. If Cazorla was further up the pitch, as he should be in a 4-1-4-1, Oxlade-Chamberlain and he could go press the ball, leaving Elmohamady and Diame in their shadows. Wilshere could mark Hull’s deepest midfielder, and Sanchez could put himself in position to intercept a pass to the central center back or to the goalkeeper. Unless the center back can dink a ball over Cazorla or Oxlade-Chamberlain without it going out of play or too far, allowing the holding midfielder to make a play on the ball, the center back’s safest play seems to be a pass back to his keeper, allowing Arsenal to push their defensive shape deeper into Hull territory, or to kick it out of play.

Instead, the center back takes a few touches, lets Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain take a bad angle at him, and passes the ball to Elmohamady. Elmohamady evades a Cazorla tackle and plays the ball to Diame. Fortunately for Arsenal, Diame does not realize that Wilshere is behind him, allowing him to make the tackle from behind. Now I may be too harsh on Cazorla for his caution. Given that Mathieu Flamini is playing at holding midfielder, and would rather sit deep than push up, Cazorla may be justified in taking the approach he did, even if it potentially cost Arsenal a good opportunity to win the ball high up the pitch. Maybe if Arsenal had a better holding midfielder, one who would and could effectively push up to make interceptions, like Arteta from the 2012-13 season, Cazorla would have more confidence in defending high up the pitch. However, this reluctance to push forward proved rather costly for Arsenal about one minute later.


Starting at the 16:30 mark, Elmohamady has the ball with quite a bit of space. Cazorla sees this and follows Diame’s run to prevent a pass to Diame. Elmohamady passes it back to the right center back, who has plenty of time and space because Hull went with a back three and Arsenal have only Welbeck up top. Once Elmohamady makes that pass to his center back, Cazorla needs to immediately move back up the pitch into his proper defensive position. In fact, Hull do Cazorla a favor by playing the ball from the RCB, to the deepest midfielder to the central CB, and then back to the RCB. And yet, in all that time, Cazorla has still not made his way back into position, leaving a significant hole in Arsenal’s defense. In fact, you can observe that Jack Wilshere sees the hole in the defense, turns to Cazorla, and wonders what the heck is doing all the way back there.


Cazorla belatedly moves up the pitch, as the ball gets played to a wide open Jake Livermore. That belated action only exacerbates Arsenal’s problems as Livermore’s pass takes Cazorla out of the play, leading to a 2-on-1 between Hatem Ben Arfa + Diame and Flamini.


Ben Arfa spends way too much time dribbling rather than making the pass to Diame first-time, giving Arsenal a chance to stop this Hull attack, but they cannot; Hull equalize³.

So while Arsenal have yet to develop the relationships in attack to get the most out of this new system4, players seem unable, at this point to get the most out of this system defensively as well. Whether this comes down to coaching, a lack of time given the nature of a pre-season during a World Cup summer, or a lack of intelligence/drive from the players, it certainly frustrates me.

This becomes especially frustrating when you think about the work rate and the proficiency in pressing of both Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. One of the most depressing sights during an Arsenal match is seeing one of them or both push up the pitch, looking to win the ball, only to see the rest of the team not push up with them, leading to wasted energy. Hopefully, Arsenal can move their style to fit their signings, rather than their signings become jaded about working defensively due to a lack of support.

Arsenal certainly need to eliminate the switching off that has plagued them defensively this season5. And sure, Arsenal could use a technical leader — someone who leads through technique; someone who can control the tempo and flow of a match. Someone who will slow it down when the team gets panicky, speed it up when they become lethargic, play it long when Arsenal need to be more direct, play it short when Arsenal need to show more patience. They need a technical leader rather than lump-kicker because Arsenal have struggled to consistently control matches with their possession for some time.

And ideally, that technical leader would also be the super-intelligent holding midfielder this team needs rather than some physical and powerful athlete who lacks a high-level of intelligence and technique to actually perform the role Arsenal need. However, even the perfect holding midfielder would not be enough if Arsenal do not learn how to defend, and particularly press, as a team.

With matches against Sunderland, Burnley, Anderlecht at home, Arsenal have an opportunity to develop some defensive cohesion against sides that should not cause them too many problems. If they make progress in defending as an XI, then the will set themselves up to cement their place as the third best team in England for this season and build that foundation for competing for major honors in subsequent years. However, if they fail to learn this essential aspect of football, they will likely not have a chance to reach the upper echelon of European football again next year.


¹Maybe Arsenal will finally look to create width with their forward line with the potential return of Theo Walcott in this game or the match against Burnley. I know Barcelona under Guardiola may not look like the best example to follow, given the incredible amount talent and cohesion, but that side tended to play their best when they created width due to the starting positions of the wide players in their front line. Dani Alves would bomb forward from deeper positions and that seemed more effective than parking him high up the pitch. By having him arrive from a deeper position, you increase the uncertainty that defenders on that side of the ball face. By having a player enter into an opponent’s defensive zone from outside of it, he forces the players to reassess the environment around him to make a decision (or you could simply catch him unaware). If the player parks himself high up the pitch, then he becomes a certain threat rather than an uncertain threat. A defender or a group of defenders can better plan and coordinate their actions to account for a certain threat than an uncertain one, making it less effective.
²Steven Gerrard, who may be the epitome of an all-action footballer with little intelligence or awareness of the game around them, showed this to be true on Wednesday. Watch Ronaldo’s first goal against Liverpool, and you will see him chase the ball like a dog playing fetch.
³And yes, Diame did foul Flamini. But how about playing until you hear the whistle rather than anticipating one/complaining? Watching Arsenal switch off when they think they deserve a foul is as terrifying as it is maddening.
4Injuries certainly hurt the ability for Arsenal to form the relationships needed to create an intuitive, reacting-rather-than-thinking style of flowing football that Arsenal have not consistently maintained for a season since…09/10?
5The second goal Arsenal conceded against Hull sees Tom Huddlestone find a pocket a space behind Jack Wilshere, receive the ball, and play it to Elmohamady. Huddlestone makes a run from the half-space up the field, into a wider area. Wilshere oddly decides to tell Nacho Monreal to pick up the run of Huddlestone. Maybe Wilshere thought Monreal was the left-back on the day and not the center back. Calling for Monreal to pick up Huddlestone’s run seems to have posed a dilemma for Monreal. He does not go to pick up Huddlstone nor does he put himself in position to double up on Abel Hernandez. By the time Wilshere realizes that Huddlestone is still his defensive responsibility, it is too late. Huddlestone has space to deliver the cross, and Hernandez heads it home.

Never in Doubt

Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal: Rosy and Stern


Last time we did this the complaint was that people want me to go first so that they can have their “Rosy-coloured-glasses” on at the end? Ha! Ok, I can handle it.

Before kickoff everyone was excited to see the new guy, Özil. Every social media site, every newspaper, and every one of my friends were talking about nothing but Özil but I was looking at the team sheet and having a small heart attack.

I guess the Özilhype is well deserved because the player is absolute class as you saw when he took down that pass and turned it into a goal. He’s direct, he’s top top top quality; he’s all the things that we’ve been told we had for the last 5 years but really didn’t.

And even I have to admit that there’s a reason why everyone keeps comparing him to Bergkamp. Özil has that rare ability to see the play develop before everyone else and know exactly what he wants to do with the ball before he gets it. He plated up more perfect chances yesterday than I could count (3 –Tim) and but for Walcott’s poor form since signing “da ting” could have easily racked up a hat-trick of assists.

But what Özil’s introduction to the squad and all the hype around him should do is show the board and the boss the importance of spending money. Not just for the quality spending brings but also for the lift it gives everyone around the club. The fans are flying high right now and that’s the kind of atmosphere which makes sponsors drool. I’m not being funny here in saying that Özil’s price-tag made headlines but the real story is that despite the huge sum paid to Real Madrid, I think Arsenal will still make a profit this year.

I think that because even if they gave Real Madrid 100% of the cash up front, Arsenal almost certainly still increased turnover by more than the £42m they paid! That’s right, the new shirt deals and the increased television revenue more than made up for the price of Özil. That means that Arsenal have to be the only club in world football who can have a total net spend of £35m in the transfer market, still turn £15m in profits (in other words not actually spend any money), and have their supporters singing the praises of the management team as if they pulled off some grand coup.

You only need to look at the squad yesterday and see that there are going to be real problems at this club over the next few weeks. Arsene already rushed a clearly unfit Özil into the starting lineup because of an ankle injury to Santi Cazorla which Wenger said will keep the Spaniard out until the next International break. Not only that but every single Arsenal fan, even the “Rosy” ones cried out in terror when Giroud looked to have picked up a knee injury. That’s because Giroud is Arsenal’s only fit forward.

I’m sorry if this hurts your feelings but it is absolutely shameful that a club like Arsenal, with £150m in the bank would go to Sunderland with this bench:

Lukasz Fabianski 21
Thomas Vermaelen 5
Nacho Monreal 17
Emmanuel Frimpong 26
Ryo Miyaichi 31
Chuba Akpom 37
Serge Gnabry 44

I saw that bench yesterday and nearly spit out me Bovril. Arsenal are going to be playing twice a week for the next two months with a squad which cannot suffer any injuries up front or they will be forced to play Chuba and Serge — which sounds like a Georgian oompah band.

Meanwhile, Arsenal have a forward who can’t score (Walcott) a defender who flies into tackles needlessly (Koscielny), another defender who should have been sent off for a last man foul (Sagna) and frankly it looks like the same old Arsenal to me just with the addition of Özil.

Oh, and Ramsey. He’s looking good this year. I’d like to think all of our criticisms finally got him to learn to be more direct. Now if someone could have a word with Wilshere, he’s hanging on to the ball too much. Best to just pass it to Özil.


Buy buy buy! Arsenal played an actual football match yesterday and all some people want to do is have a moan about the bench. Let’s talk about buying in January, you know, when the window opens.

Until then, injuries are going to happen, you can’t have 6 center backs lying around doing nothing so maybe some reserve players will need to be slotted in and make weight. That’s how Wenger’s been doing this for as long as I’ve followed Arsenal — did you know that during the Invincibles season a fresh-faced Gael Clichy started 15 matches for Arsenal. It happens, you deal with it, I’m sure the boss has a plan to buy someone big in January.

In the meantime we have football to talk about.

Speaking of the Invincibles, am I the only one here who thinks Wenger is assembling the Invincibles Mk. II with Özil as the new Bergkamp?

See, it’s not just so much how Özil’s touch to take down the pre-assist from Kieran Gibbs was Bergkampesque. Nor that like Bergkamp, he already knew what he wanted to do with the ball and then simply looks up to get Giroud’s exact coordinates and plays a perfectly weighted ball in to Giroud. It’s that Arsenal’s opener yesterday reminded me of the way the Invincibles used to play. I watched the 49ers DVD the other day and was struck by how many of Arsenal’s goals were scored either from the counter attack or were started by a long first pass by a defender.

When I think of “playing football the Arsenal way” that’s what I envision: quick, vertical football, played with nimble players who are thinking three passes ahead of the defenders and that’s what Özil brings to the team.

And just like Bergkamp’s first season at Arsenal it’s going to take a few games for his teammates to catch up with him. Walcott in particular seemed to be surprised by some of the passes Özil made for him and tried to rush his shot or went for the default: power. Once he realizes that Özil’s passes give him more time than he thinks, we should see the goals start to flow.

Like they have for Giroud. How can you not be happy for Giroud? He struggled last season putting away the gilt-edged chances he got. This season he’s not only scoring in front of goal he’s also getting early goals for Arsenal, which is yet another feature of that Invincibles team, they often got off to a quick start and then could sit back for the rest of the game and hit the opposition on counters. Which is what we are seeing again this year as Arsenal have held leads against all the teams we’ve played against except Aston Villa.

Yesterday, Arsenal were nearly undone parking the bus, however, when Koscielny went in hard for the ball, failed to win it and Adam Johnson went to ground like a foreigner, or an Englishman playing for Sunderland, take your pick. Atkinson was thoroughly fooled by the Englishman’s dive and gave the penalty.

As an aside I have supreme confidence that Koscielny will improve on his tendency to dive in to tackles in the box. This is a player, remember, who works on every aspect of his game and has improved steadily over the last three years. Fear not positivists, Koz will come good (just like Ramsey has).

You could tell that the penalty shook Arsenal’s confidence and Sunderland nearly got a second goal when Jozy Altidore held off Sagna and scored beneath Szczesny’s legs. Atkinson probably got that whole thing wrong, if it was a foul, he probably should have played advantage, or if not then perhaps sent Sagna off for the foul which denied an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.

But the problem is that refereeing in England has become so wildly inconsistent that no one knows what to expect when they watch a match. In the earlier match Man U were awarded a penalty for a foul which clearly happened outside of the box and all of the pundits admitted that the foul occurred outside the box, but still said “for me, that’s a penalty.” Which.Is.CRAZY. It looks to me like matches are being refereed from gut instinct rather than an application of laws and that is just ripe for problems.

In the end, who knows what would have happened if Atkinson had gotten all the calls right? He didn’t, and plenty he got wrong against Arsenal, and Arsenal won anyway and I’m not going to worry too much about what his influence was or wasn’t on the game.

Because for me, Aaron Ramsey won Arsenal that game. He led the team in pretty much every statistical category from passes to tackles to goals and the two goals he scored both prompted me to a standing ovation. Just sublime skill. With Flamini behind him providing a stable platform Ramsey was free to roam, which plays right to his strengths.

But really Flamini was the unsung hero. Flamini didn’t put up eye popping numbers but he provided defensive insurance behind the more creative players like Ramsey and Özil. I can say from experience that I always feel more comfortable as a midfielder with a solid defender behind me. I think that’s why Ramsey led Arsenal in tackles, he could get stuck in and take the ball; that’s why Ramsey led Arsenal in goals, he could bomb forward a bit knowing that Flamini was behind him to mop up the mess.

Flamini also takes away some of the heat from players like Ramsey and Özil. Lost in the sublime performances of Ramsey (most improved player or most improved player of all time?) and Özil was the subtle graft of Flamini, getting under the skin of Steven Fletcher to the point where the Sunderland forward could have gotten a red card for his clear retaliation foul on Flamini after the two of them squared up, he got nothing, in fact Flamini ended up with the yellow later in the match.

In the end, though, I’m not going to moan about the referee. All that matters is that Arsenal saw a great debut from a player who was operating at about 50%, got two stonking great goals from a player who has spent most of his time at Arsenal being maligned by the moaners, and that Arsenal topped the table.


Wankers, the lot of them

Sunderland v. Arsenal: let’s shush them

Many of you know that I was there in 2009 when Arsenal were held to a scoreless draw against Sunderland at the Emirates. Sunderland had no intention of playing for more than a point that day and shut down Arsenal’s attack, despite that being the first match for record signing Andrei Arshavin, through cynical fouling and playing deep in their own half for all 90 minutes. When the final whistle went off, the Mackems erupted in dance and jeered at the home crowd in scenes of celebration that would not have looked out of place if they had just won the Champions League.

The worst part, though, was having to endure them shushing us as we trudged out in silence. That still chaps my hide to this day.

Sunderland have been a bit of a bogey team in this regard for the last five seasons, holding Arsenal to three 0-0 draws at the Emirates and giving up a total of just four League goals in the other two matches. Away has been a similar story. The Gunners have two wins, one loss, and two draws in those 5 away games and an aggregate score of just 5-4 to the Arsenal. If you’re counting, that’s 5 draws, 4 wins, and just the one loss. Sunderland play Arsenal for the draw and the total goals scored reflect that with 9 for Arsenal and 5 against or 14 goals total, a 1.4 goals per game average — roughly half the number of goals we would expect to see at an Arsenal game during that same period.

The safe bet, then, is a dour match with a 1-0 or 1-1 scoreline. However, with a little luck, Arsenal could pull off a big win, say, 3-0 or something. And with the buzz around the club at the moment, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a big scoreline for the first time in 5 seasons.

If we do, I want the away boys to shush those Southern Geordies. Shush them hard!


The buzz at Arsenal is all over Mesut Özil and the fact that he brings more vision in his left eye than Arsenal have had since Cesc went on strike to force a move to Barcelona. When I was looking through the media stuff on the official site I noticed that Özil wasn’t in any of the training pictures. And now we find out he and Mertesacker have got the flu. Question marks hang over whether he and Per Mertesacker will be fit for the match tomorrow.

I’m not expecting him or Mertesacker to play which is a blow for the Gunners. Özil will be Arsenal’s new dedicated set play taker, as he was at Real Madrid, and his accuracy from corners would have been great to see.

His illness, along with key injuries to others, also leaves a strange hole in the Arsenal midfield. Cazorla is the only currently fit first team player who can play on the left. That means Arsenal have to play Zorla, Giroud, and Walcott up front, Wilshere and Ramsey in the middle and the surprise inclusion of Flamini as the rudder.

Giroud is in fine form so far this term with three goals in three games. I’m hoping to see him get a fourth and really push on from his performances last term where he struggled in front of away crowds. Walcott also has looked poor-ish this season and really needs a goal to settle him down a bit. Though, his ability to provide from the wings is underrated and he looks to be on the verge of forming some new partnership with Giroud.

Wenger’s inability to land a forward this summer also leaves Arsenal’s bench insanely bereft of any game-changing forwards. Expect to see two or more of Sanogo, Miyaichi, and Gnabry there. Wait… did I just say that out loud? Oh yes, I did.

The only midfielder I see on the official list who can make the bench is Frimpong. As a result, Arsenal supporters will be on pins and needles any time a midfielder or forward is involved in a tackle.  

I guess defense is sort of stacked. Sagna will cover for Mertesacker and Jenkinson will play right back. Koscielny gets the start unless he gets sick from sharing the same sippy cup that Mertesacker and Özil drank from. Gibbs will probably get the start over Nacho and Vermaelen may make the bench along with Viviano, the new Starbucks drink.

Wait… did I say I hope we win 3-0? Well, I still hope it.

Mostly because Sunderland have been miserable up to this point and the home fans are letting Fascist manager Paolo di Canio know it at every turn.

Sunderland, though, have a huge lump of a center back named Diakite and he has been their best overall player so far. They will build off his power and try to nip at Arsenal in the midfield with Vaughn and Cabral diving in at the ankles of Ramsey and Wilshere all match. Wilshere was one of the most-fouled players in the Premier League last season and I expect he will continue to be targeted this season and especially tomorrow as he tries to dribble through the Sunderland lines.

Up front, I was expecting Jozy Altidore to start and I can tell you he is not the same player you probably remember from Hull City. A spell in the Eredivisie has given him huge confidence in front of goal and Arsenal will need to watch out for his pace and power on the counter attack.

But since Sunderland landed Fabio Borini on loan from Liverpool that changes the equation slightly, though, again, the player has a bit of a hamstring and even Di Canio isn’t crazy enough to play a forward with a hamstring niggle in a counter attacking set up? Right?

Sunderland’s real threat is from corners and set plays (which they will be diving all over the field to win). Seb Larsson isn’t a good footballer but he would make a wonderful kicker in throwball. He and Darren Fletcher (be wary of anyone who has a “trademark header”) will be looking to exploit Arsenal from every set play.

At the outset I wanted to shush them, but now, I don’t reaaally care what we do so long as we get the three points and keep everyone healthy for Wednesday.