The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Eight points on Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland

Isn’t it nice to have normality for once? In a sense, this was a typical Arsenal home performance. They dominated the first quarter of the match and for all the world looked like their technical superiority will run wild before a chronic aberration before half-time contrived to throw open the game. The rest of the match is then played in the attacking half as Arsenal push forward in search of the winner. Robin van Persie provided it and also opened the scoring, taking his tally in 2011 to 23 goals in 25 games. It’s a fantastic return but one that highlights the imbalances of this Arsenal side, namely the reliance on their captain. Here are some observations from the 2-1 win over Sunderland.

1. Little Mozart pulls the strings

Arsenal showed great link-up and interchange in the first 25 minutes and much of the reason why was the ambiguity the midfield three played with. Mikel Arteta often dropped deep to pick up the ball thus allowing Alex Song to push up while Tomáš Rosický roamed. As a result Sunderland found it difficult to mark. They matched up in the centre in terms of formations, both sides playing a variant of the 4-3-3 although Sunderland’s was much more defensive; a 4-5-1 in fact. Rosický in particular, revelled from the extra movement around him and was key in the first goal. He gave Arsenal an urgency on the ball and as displayed by his passing graphic, made a number of passes in the final third. It’s a shame he couldn’t sustain it but that was perhaps expected, having come off a gruelling international schedule. Nonetheless, his replacement, Yossi Benayoun, showed spark after coming on. Most encouragingly though, is Rosický’s with Arteta which looks very impressive.

2. Reliant on Robin?

There are some statistics which suggest Robin van Persie has had to play more orthodox this season (such as no. of dribbles, dispossessed) although they’re not as revealing as his main stat; the goals he has scored. 51% of Arsenal’s league goals in 2011 have come from the Dutchman and he looked Arsenal’s best chance of scoring on Sunday. He’s crucial to the way Arsenal play but the team might not be as reliant on van Persie as the statistics seem to suggest. That’s because Arséne Wenger simply hasn’t given as much game time to his other strikers, tending to stick to what works. And that means more minutes – and invariably goals – for van Persie.

3. Mikel Arteta: the new Denilson

But only better. Arséne Wenger may have searched long and hard for a replacement for Cesc Fábregas but his most taxing search has been looking for a second-function midfielder to give security to Arsenal when they attack. After Gilberto, Flamini, Denilson, Diaby and Wilshere have all played that role while Melo and M’vila had been heavily linked and Arteta is the newest name on the list. He gives Arsenal “technical security,” as Wenger said after the 1-0 win over Swansea but he has measured his sharp passing with discipline, something which Arsenal sorely need.

Replace Denilson with Arteta in this quote Wenger made in 2009 of the Brazilian on loan at São Paulo but make sure you repeat the caveat “only better” when you finish.

Denilson Arteta gives us stability. Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”

4. Arsenal’s biggest flaw

Sunderland came back into the game with 25 minutes gone and by the end of the half, could have went into the interval leading. Lee Cattermole’s header was superbly blocked by Wojciech Szczęsny after Sebastian Larsson had equalised and it came after a period of sustained pressure by Sunderland. They pressed Arsenal higher and effectively man-marked their midfielders ensuring any space to be found had to be hard earned. Not coincidentally, Arsenal’s pressing game relaxed – and it seems it’s a common occurrence in this part of the match this season – and this invited Sunderland at them. Arsenal’s biggest flaw has been their relaxed pressing – which in fairness has gotten better each game – which focuses on shape first before closing down. Sunderland felt that if they got tighter to Arsenal and press their midfielders, they could turn the game into a scrap. They succeeded in this period – and thankfully in this period only – to trouble Arsenal although it might be stressed, fairly sporadically. The boos at half-time seem to suggest otherwise, though.

Arsenal's passes when they dominated in first-half (0-25mins) and when Sunderland pressed (25-45mins)

 5. Laurent Koscielny remains unsung

The player with the best aerial success in the Premier League? Tick. Arsenal’s heading woes may be well documented but Laurent Koscielny stands on the shoulders of giants in this regard….ahem, excuse the pun. His overall aerial success rate was at 86% before the game (12/14) and against Sunderland, he won 6 out of 7 of his challenges. He’s just as good on the ground too, often nipping in to steal the ball and making crucial interceptions but his covering of the full-back was his most impressive contribution on Sunday.

6. Carl Jenkinson’s party trick

He likes to cross it and he’s very good at it too. Just as well Arsenal are the footballing equivalent of Ronny Corbett in the box.

7. Emphasis on forward three after Cesc departure/Wilshere injury

In Wenger’s attempts to make Arsenal more dynamic, he’s willing to let the three forwards stay up the pitch. That means there can often seem to be a disjointedness between Arsenal’s attack and midfield – which is heightened greater by Cesc Fábregas’s departure. But because no-one, apart from Alex Song, perhaps, is fully comfortable making through-passes, the playmaker role is now shared. Dynamism then, is expected to come from the forward three who are given more license to move around the pitch. So far, Gervinho and Theo Walcott are yet to fire but if the three striker ploy works, as they tried in pre-season, it could be deadly.

8. Sunderland had van Persie’s free-kick coming

Without Jack Wilshere, Arsenal have lacked that somebody to suddenly change the impetus of an attack down the centre. In past games, Alex Song has attempted to replace his drive has but overall on Sunday, as a team, Arsenal showed more willingness to run at defenders. They constantly won free-kicks at the edge of Sunderland’s box due to the Black Cats’ incessant tactical fouling – which I’d argue is as bigger evil than diving. Arsenal won 12 free-kicks in their opponent’s half and used four different takers – Arteta, Walcott, van Persie and Santos – to try and take advantage. Van Persie’s superb free-kick – the 2nd best of the day however – was just deserts for Sunderland’s persistent fouling to stop potentially more  damaging danger from materialising.

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19 Responses to “Eight points on Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland”

  1. Mani says:

    Dear Arsenalcolum

    I usually love your articles, but my goodness man, do some editing before posting up the finished product! I mean, I’d hate to be a grammar nazi here, but my 14 year old sister could have written this more eloquently.

    Otherwise, great article.

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    The Brain Reply:

    @Mani,

    I take it on board as I’m firstly an analyst (not professionally of course, but that would be the dream) then a writer. I try to make it as readable as possible – could you possibly give me some pointers on what you found fussy to read? Thanks

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    Mani Reply:

    @The Brain,

    No problem mate, and allow me to first reiterate the fact that I love your articles. You are by far my favourite tactical analysis blogger.

    The main thing that irks me is the constant change in tenses. You go from past, to present, to future … it gets irritating. I’m not a scholar by any means, but I have been taught that when writing, it is best to stick with one grammatical tense throughout. I had a few more issues than these, but I cannot presently recall them. I’ll be sure to reply to you if I do remember them.

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  2. kathir says:

    great article as always.. its become a habit to expect ur article after every match for me……Glad u mentioned koscielny .. he is been so matured for us and his long balls are bit of a worry though.. he clears it bit more often than starting the play thru midfield thus we end up loosing position and inviting pressure to us… though wilshere s surging runs are missed, i m bit sceptical abt the creative as in he would be able to deliver like cesc did which took cesc lot more time to get upfront and stabilise…AMF is needed with quality less or more of cesc is reqd is my humble opinion

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    The Brain Reply:

    @kathir,

    I do think Wilshere can be brilliant with more freedom to attack. As Guillem Balagué wrote about Mario Gotze – two similar type of players in my opinion – “has such a young player ever played as big a part in a club’s title win?” and I feel age hasn’t as much significance on whether he can fulfil the role.

    It’d be a different Arsenal – potential more direct with the ball at feet – but Wilshere’s so spontaneous, he’d be deadly.

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  3. Greg says:

    Those 2 graphs on Arsenal’s passing in the first half are very telling. Nice “U”- shape on the first one, as the centre-halves or deep-lying midfielders have time to make sideways passes between them, and then pass up into the channels for the forwards.

    On the second, you can see that shape has disappeared, the passing patterns are all broken up and we are using the keeper a lot more. Clear illustration of how pressing high up the field can break up your opposition’s rhythm.

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    The Brain Reply:

    @Greg,

    Indeed, you can see; (i) the relative difference of pressure on the centre-backs;
    (ii) How the flanks were shut out and
    (iii) How they made the central midfielders play more orthodoxly. Arteta in particular was man-marked and he couldn’t drop deep to pick up the ball.

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  4. Woolwich Peripatetic says:

    There’s definitely a pattern forming of ‘waving the rag at the bull’ in midfield to our play. It’s certainly interesting, to say the least. As a deliberate tactic the opposition manager can either surrender the midfield battle and hope to get something out of long punts out of defence, or try and get tight in midfield (as Steve Bruce appears to have gone for).
    Of course it will only work if you have technically superior players in midfield (Arteta) and highly mobile strikers (Gervinho/Theo) to exploit through balls played in behind the opposition defence. If they sit deep, refuse to come out and play, you’re reduced to potshots from distance or trying to dribble through a packed defence…

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  5. melcfromfinsburypark says:

    Another interesting look at an Arsenal game brain. Its always a relief to come here and read buts and bolts rather than the listening to and reading the 606 type “fans” getting all pchizoid on us somehow managing to make two and two add up to 436. They so wind me up. What I found really interesting about the game on Sunday was that Sunderland had that spell that you have highlighted when we were rocking and it was really working. So, one would have expected them to come out and continue where they left off pressing high. I can’t believe Steve Bruce would have told them to chaneg a tactic that had worked so well for 20 minutes. And I don’t believe that they would have expended too much energy in the first half too prevent them from doing closing down high up again. So what changed then? I can only think that Arsene instilled a subtle change in the way we played when we came out for the second half but I’ve got no idea what that change was. Any ideas?

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @melcfromfinsburypark,

    Arsenal have started second-halves well recently and they seem to do well when the objective is fresh in their minds. Wenger said “at half time the team regrouped and then the second half was all us.”

    Arsenal’s technical quality showed in the end while at the same time, mentally, Sunderland seemed to tire. When that happens you tend to do things ordinary and conventionally; they sat back more without pressing as high up the pitch and getting tight as they did before the half.

    We showed more urgency and committed more men around the box quicker; it was difficult still to break through and I believe we could have had better chances if we weren’t felled as often around the box.

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  6. Tee Song says:

    I agree with most of your points, especially on Koscielny and Rosicky. Koz seems to have all the tools to become a top class defender–anticipation, decent pace, clean tackler, good in the air, good in possession. About the only thing he’s missing is strength which I’m sure he’s working on since he’s acknowledged that weakness. I’m sure the plaudits would be rolling in if he were English but since he’s French…oh well.

    Rosicky was always making himself available and always trying to play the ball forward, either with the dribble or pass. He seems more comfortable than Aaron at this point in receiving passes higher up the pitch with his back to goal and quickly making space for himself, thus keeping the forward momentum going rather than taking a couple of touches back towards his goal before turning. Little Mozart still seems to lack something in the final third. Perhaps it’s confidence related and I suspect a goal might do wonders for him.

    I disagree somewhat about RvP. I think this team, at this time is highly reliant on Robin. A fit van Persie could start on just about any team in the world. With the loss of three of last season’s first choice eleven and several major squad players and so many new additions, Arsenal are in major rebuild mode. RvP is carrying the scoring burden as this team learns to play together. When the midfield solidifies and his fellow forwards find their shooting boots, we will become less reliant on his goals but Robin is the lynchpin and key player in our attack.

    I think that Gervinho, due to adjusting to the BPL and a new team, and Theo, adjusting to life without Cesc, have yet to hit their stride. Gervinho’s directness is a breath of fresh air on a team which tends to over elaborate. As in previous games, he worked himself into a good position against Sunderland only to waste his shot and he wasn’t always on the same page as his teammates with his passes or runs. However, fifteen goals and ten assists for Lille last season suggest he can make a strong contribution once he acclimated to the team.

    Theo continues to be misunderstood. I’ve read a lot of comments suggesting he was very poor in this game. I think people get frustrated by his inability to beat defenders one on one consistently. To me, Theo is a finisher who needs his teammates to pick out his runs so he can just pass or shoot from a good position. He’s not currently, and may never be, the type of player who’s going to beat three defenders with tricks or deliver an inch perfect thirty yard through ball. Against Sunderland, he got himself into decent shooting position but couldn’t hit the target. I think that if he continues to get those types of opportunities, the goals will come. As you suggest, when the forward trio learn to play off each other and find the back of the net, our overall attack will improve.

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    Waleed Reply:

    @Tee Song, The thing about Rosicky is that he seems to start the season brightly but then fades away. Past two seasons in September I thought “the old Rosicky is back” but then he just fades away. No idea why.

    And agree completely about Theo. He is not a link player, he’s a finisher. He likes to get on the end of things. Right now, besides the fact that we haven’t been playing a lot of through balls, our higher emphasis on wing play has meant he’s required to do a bit more with the ball and he hasn’t quite delivered.
    But maybe this will force him to step up and improve himself, who knows?
    But the thing about Theo is that even when he doesn’t perform, he offers us pace and energy when defending, and even without seeing the ball he is a great tactical weapon to have, because the opponents instantly sit back a bit, and the fullback is always afraid to attack on his side, cutting off supply down that flank.
    He is only 22 or 23 still and if he can improve his passing just a bit he can be a world class player.

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  7. Josef says:

    a great analysis – I couldn’t watch the game, but I feel much more informed now then I did after having read only the match reports.

    I sort of agree with the first commenter in terms of feeling that a bit of copy-editing would be desirable. Instead of just complaining, though, I’ll offer my expertise. I work on submitting grant applications at a cancer hospital, and copy-editing our proposals is a significant part of my responsibility. I’d be glad to give your columns a once-over prior to publication if that would suit you – just hit me up at the email I entered for this comment if you want to discuss further.

    cheers,

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  8. finsbury says:

    Hi Brain, hope you’re well.

    Is one reason why we’ve seen strong second half performances of late related to teams trying to press the Arsenal and tiring in the second half? In some games there was no doubt about that.

    On Robin, it’s not the first time there’s been a spell where he’s lead the team by scorng a lot. I remember the mid season run in Song & Denilson’s first season in the first team, where RVP scored almost every goal and got lots of assits too. A bit more important in securing that 4th spot then Arshavin’s signing, (Arshavin did play well) but RVP’s heroisim at that time was buried (for some) under the general negativity.

    Any thoughts on a post discussing where Arshavin’s best role might be, on why he doesn’t play the 10ish role (lots of running? Too much for Andrei!) behind RVP. Interested in your thoughts on that one.

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    Waleed Reply:

    @finsbury, I think Arshavin doesn’t play in the center simply because with Theo and Gervinho on the wings we can’t afford yet another forward in the line up.
    It would mean switching to more of a 4-4-2 and we don’t have the players for that formation to be effective.
    And playing 4-4-2 would have added disadvantages.

    But I think Arshavin already plays a 10-ish role. He operates very centrally even when starting on the wing and the question isn’t about his best position but about his form. If he is in form he can do anything, but nothing is going right for him for a while now.

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    finsbury Reply:

    Waleed, agreed.
    With Nasri gone, Arshavin has more room to move around when compared to last season when he played on the left and Na$ri to the right of Chamack and then RVP. Even though his form wasn’t the best, he still bagged a lot of assists and key passes.
    I think fitness is an issue for Arshavin. I think we’ll see him rotating with Gervinho and Theo through the season. Then there are AOC and Ryo, who’ll probably break into the first eleven a little more towards the fixture laden turn of the year, as the manager has indicated.

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  9. finsbury says:

    Correction! ‘scored almost every goal and got the remaining assists’…

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    Waleed Reply:

    @finsbury, I remember he scored or assisted every goal in the month of January that season.

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  10. Waleed says:

    One thing I noticed playing FIFA (I don’t know how well this translated into real life, but interesting nonetheless) –
    The difference in attacking play between a a 4-1-2-3 and a 4-2-3-1. In the latter, the focal point of the attack is the central playmaker. He is the one the ball goes to when you pass forward. The striker stays higher up.
    In the latter, the focal point becomes the central striker, and he becomes much more involved in the attack than in a 4-2-3-1.

    Now of course in real life Arsenal’s midfielders are more mobile and fluid and Cesc didn’t stay high up and play as a focal point. But it does seem that in a 4-2-3-1 Wenger wanted the team to play through him. Now that he is gone, there is no such focal point in midfield but rather RvP is the one the team looks to.

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