Arsenal had a frustrating opening game against a Sunderland side that implemented their manager Martin O’Neill’s trademark “negative but resilient” game plan to a perfection.
Arsenal played their usual 4-3-3 formation with Carl Jenkinson replacing the injured Bacary Sagna at right back and Per Mertesacker starting instead of the injured Laurent Koscielny at the centerback position, along with the new captain Thomas Vermaalen. At left back, Kieran Gibbs was preferred ahead of Andre Santos.
In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Abou Diaby (who started ahead of Alex Song as Song was excluded due to his ongoing transfer saga to Barcelona). The new signing Santi Cazorla occupied the most advanced midfield role.
The attacking trio had Theo Walcott on the right, Gervinho on the left, and the new signing Lukas Podolski as the central striker.
The game started as expected with Sunderland immediately taking up a solid defensive shape with two banks of four where the two Sunderland wide midfielders were instructed to play as auxiliary full backs to prevent any overlapping runs by Arsenal full backs Gibbs and Jenkinson.
In Arsenal’s central midfield, Arteta seemed to take up a more holding role, whereas Abou Diaby had a more penetrating role to launch attacks. Sunderland did not press Arsenal’s ball circulation through Diaby and Arteta deep in Arsenal half, but rather preferred to keep their solid defensive shape intact. Their two most advanced players Sessegnon and Campbell retreated behind the ball very quickly, and prevented their central midfield duo (Cattermole and Collback) from being overrun by the Arsenal’s midfield trio. The two Sunderland wide midfielders, Larsonn and McClean, closed up the flanks by doubling up in front of their fullbacks as mentioned.
Despite this defensive shape, it was ironically Sunderland who had the first clear chance of the game as early as the fourth minute. Missing Alex Song’s pressure on the ball, Arsenal midfield watched a through ball played by Sunderland left back Kieran Richardson to McClean, who advanced freely from the channel left wide open by Vermaalen and Mertesacker, but his shot was saved by Szczesny. Another good Sunderland build-up a few minutes later raised the eyebrows about the lack of pressing in Arsenal’s midfield, as Collback had a free shot at goal after being set up by Larsonn, which was again saved.
The most positive aspect of the first 15 minutes (in fact the whole game) from an Arsenal point of view was the absolute quality of Santi Cazorla in the advanced central midfield position. He displayed a class on the ball and vision that was missing from Arsenal’s midfield since the departure of Fabregas. In between the two Sunderland chances, Cazorla broke through Sunderland’s midfield cover, and fired a left-footed missile from outside the box saved by the Sunderland goalie Mignolet. His tricky movement and clever one-touch balls avoiding the Sunderland press was a joy to watch for most of the first half. When he set up Gervinho for a run into the box from the wide left position, Cazorla almost scored from Gervinho’s cutback, but missed the target as the generally disappointing Podolski distracted him by also making an attempt on the ball.
As the first half progressed, the game became increasingly one-sided with Sunderland losing all their interest in breaking forward, and being solely occupied with keeping their defensive shape. Cazorla set up Theo Walcott on the right whose cross was cleared by the excellent Cuellar in Sunderland defense just when Podolski was about to finish into an open net. Cazorla then whipped in a great cross with his right foot from the left, which was ridiculously missed by Theo Walcott, who did next to nothing positive in the first half.
With Sunderland ever happy sitting back, Arsenal lacked the intensity, quick passing and tempo to break them, and relied mostly on Cazorla’s scheming and Gervinho’s solo direct runs from the left. Gervinho had a very busy afternoon, yet he almost always faced two Sunderland men closing down his flank.
In the second half, the game continued in the same fashion and Sunderland’s tenacity was the telling factor, especially with Cuellar excelling with numerous blocks and key interventions. Sunderland offered absolutely nothing going forward in this second half, yet it was interesting that the always adventurous Vermaalen did not leave his post to join attacks, probably due to the understandable fear of exposing Mertesacker’s lack of pace in a Sunderland counterattack, which never materialized.
Arsenal played many home games last season like this with the opposition set up merely to frustrate, and it was typically an Alex Song-Van Persie moment of brilliance that won the game for them. When Cazorla found the substitute Olivier Giroud ten minutes from time with a brilliantly disguised ball, Arsenal fans thought that the moment of magic have arrived once again, only to see the last season’s top scorer in France to miss the sitter in spectacular fashion.
Overall, there were some positives for Arsenal despite the frustrating result. The main positive was Santi Cazorla who, despite his grueling travels with Spain over the Atlantic in midweek, looked every bit of the kind of class that departed with Robin Van Persie last week. Gervinho showed a lot of energy on the day, yet he was subdued with Sunderland’s doubling up his flank whenever he ran at them with the ball. Diaby had a decent performance, but lacked the drive, quickness and penetration to open up Sunderland’s center, despite having a good shot saved in the first half. Gibbs looked solid defensively, but it is fair to say that Sunderland did not have much of an intention to remove the double cover on their flanks by sending their wide attackers forward. Podolski had a quite disappointing debut by all accounts with his confused movement and did not link up well with the midfield runners. Giroud gave a glimpse of the mobile and hungry target man he is supposed to be, but missed an absolute sitter to win the game. I expect Giroud to start as the central striker next week against Stoke City in the traditional “most annoying away game” of the season. Arsenal seemed to have a good shape and discipline all game long, but were not checked defensively because of Sunderland’s lack of ambition going forward.