Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland
The joys of Arsenal this season have been seeing Arséne Wenger construct, out of a young, exuberant and somewhat fragile group of players, a dynamic and highly-integrated passing and pressing machine that reached it’s apex in the 2-1 win over Barcelona. The frustrations, have largely come when that unit becomes disintegrated – mainly due to injuries – and it exposes slight structural inefficiencies thus hampering fluency and every so often, throwing up a momentary lapse of concentration that threatens to throw away the game. So, perhaps it was always inevitable, that Arsenal, without four of its key men this season, would make hard weather of an admittedly tricky meeting with Sunderland.
Much of the post-match moans and groans were about the offside and penalty decisions that weren’t given and while it’s true they may have been decisive, The Gunners should not discount the pattern of play that happened before them. Chances were missed although perhaps not of the quality seen in previous matches as creativity and fluency suffered a hit. It seems, with the multitude of chances the side creates, the preciousness of a single chance is somewhat taken for granted. A shot on target is seemingly good enough for Arsenal to reaffirm its status as beautiful martyrs.
How the adjustment of Jack Wilshere’s role affected Arsenal’s dynamics
Wenger’s selection was as expected and arguably as strong as he could have picked although the inclusion of Denilson, who is woefully out of form, forever irks some Gooners and in this match, he failed to disprove those dissenters. His passing was as ever tidy but it looked unthreatening and comatose against the carefree nature of the game. Both sides traded 4-2-3-1 with 4-2-3-1 as Sunderland looked to man-mark Arsenal whenever it had possession and as a result, the home-side was never allowed any real fluency.
Arsenal looked disjointed from the off and a lot seemed to boil down to one significant adjustment; that of Jack Wilshere moving from his nominal double-pivot role to one behind the striker. He has become so crucial to the team’s dynamics this season as one of the two deeper midfielders that the absence of him from the position was instantly telling. The impact this had on the team was threefold:
(ii) Pressing (of which affects structure and distances);
First off, a word on Sunderland’s start before we expand on the above bullet points, which initially caused some problems to Arsenal’s defence. Steve Bruce opted for a formation which matched up to The Gunners so his side could press better but it came as some surprise as to where he deployed his men. Sulley Muntari and Jordan Henderson screened the back-four while it was Kieran Richardson, usually their left-back who started as the highest midfielder. He was flanked by Steed Malbranque on the left and Stéphane Sessegnon on the right and the amorphous selection started brightly for the Black Cats.
Arséne Wenger usually pushes his two central midfielders forward at the beginning of the game, in order to negate the opposition pressing through the middle but the tactic proceeded to give those versatile players a bit of room. Arsenal visibly needed a dynamic player to get the ball out of the back but Abou Diaby tends to dwell on the ball and Denilson can often pass too lateral and as a result the ball was not recycled as effectively as it could have been. Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou were therefore given much responsibility to bring the ball out of the defence and often strode with the ball into the opponents half in order to advance the play.
Having said that, Denilson’s sheer desire to keep the ball moving, whether penetrative or not, when he did get the ball higher up the pitch was not such a bad idea. With passes being hit astray, he continued to play the ball to feet, hoping to suck the opposition out of position with his movement. In this instance it didn’t really work because Sunderland defended solidly and kept tight to Arsenal’s midfielders, particularly starving Wilshere of space to influence, and the side also lacked runners getting beyond. Tomas Rosicky’s ineffectiveness in the League Cup Final ultimately cost him a place in the starting line-up but in recent games, he has shown a greater willingness to break forward, doing so against Birmingham City and creating the first goal in 5-0 rout of Leyton Orient.
Arsenal’s pressing also suffered although not to the extent of which was seen against Birmingham as Sunderland naturally dropped back because they were satisfied with the draw while Birmingham in the final was forced to go for the win. Jack Wilshere, who has been an exemplar exponent of Wenger’s tactic of through-marking in the press, looked unsure of who to stick tight too as he was up against two holding midfielders. Through-marking requires each player behind the ball to stick tight to their opposing players to therefore eliminate the easy pass out but there wasn’t something right with the distances between each Arsenal player (See Figure 2). Denilson and Diaby were often too separated from each other when Arsenal didn’t have the ball. Wenger pointed to Diaby’s lack of sharpness in his positional play against Orient and that was on display here. He was given the covering role of Song in the double-pivot but was attracted to the play towards the right. It was by far not a bad performance; however, he failed to provide the drive he usually brings to the team. The absence of Fabregas shifted more responsibility to Nasri and Wilshere to create but the game also highlighted the importance of other absentees. Van Persie has perfectly balanced the art of the striker while Song provides the protection and power to complement Arsenal’s intricacy and Theo Walcott helps create space centrally by stretching the play. Nasri assumed the right sided role very well but was always relied upon to cut inside and help Arsenal create.
Arsenal’s disjointedness is shown against Sunderland in comparison with their average touch positions for the whole season. In Figure 1, Wilshere and Song typically make a more synchronised partnership, showing the importance of the double pivot to the team’s dynamics. In Figure 2, Denilson is too central – his style which is usually playing as the deepest midfielder in a 4-3-3 – while Diaby has pushed to far forward. The distances between the pair are too large and it shows how the roles have been switched. Normally, it is the left-sided midfielder, Wilshere, who circulates possession but this time it was Denilson but he was often too deep. Diaby, who should have assumed the covering role of Alex Song, was too attracted to play on the right.
The Nicklas Bendtner and Marouanne Chamakh rivalry goes on
Had Nicklas Bendtner got on to the end of Gael Clichy’s cross early in the first-half, the Dane would have been a dead cert to start against Barcelona. But as it is, it still leaves us with unanswered questions on who should start in the big match. Should the main role of the striker be to get the best out of the front four or score goals? Everything is relative of course, but Bendtner could have been accused of being too individualistic at times, drifting to the left and looking to get the ball to his feet at all times.
In the second-half, Marouanne Chamakh entered the fray and with Bendtner pushed to the right, Arsenal looked more dynamic. Bendtner was able to tuck in behind the Moroccan and provided Arsenal with more numbers in the box although it should not be discounted, the drive Wilshere provided with the substitution. Picking the ball up from deeper, he has space to run with the ball forward; something which he was denied in the first-half although you could see why Wenger placed him in the attacking midfield slot; Wilshere played some wonderful passes that on another day, may have found a man. Football is a game of margins as Bendtner will have found out but there is a chance he will start along with Chamakh at Camp Nou.