Sunderland vs. Arsenal: 5 Keys to a Gunners Victory
Arsenal travel to the Stadium of Light on Saturday to take on a resurgent Sunderland team who have really responded to new manager Martin O'Neill. The game takes on added significance as it will also act as a precursor to the upcoming FA Cup fifth-round clash between the two teams.
League points are vital for Arsenal right now, as they chase the coveted Champions League spots. The Gunners have gained four points in their last two Premier League outings and offered a glimmer of hope that the dismal form that began 2012 is behind them.
That notion will be severely tested when Arsene Wenger's team travels to the North East. Sunderland have won five of their last six league contests under O'Neill. The Black Cats have become tough to beat since the former Glasgow Celtic and Aston Villa manager implemented his defensive tactics.
Here are five keys that can help Arsenal break down and resist a buoyant Sunderland side and score three crucial points in the frenetic race for fourth place.
5. Score Early
This might be easier said than done, but Arsenal have made fast starts and scored early goals against Fulham, Swansea City and Blackburn Rovers recently. They will need to do the same against the Black Cats.
O'Neill's teams rely on getting men behind the ball and hitting the opposition on the counter attack. By netting an early goal, Arsenal can force Sunderland out of their comfort zone.
If Sunderland are made to push out and venture forward more than they would like, Arsenal can pick them off on the counter. The Gunners have stuttered through slow starts at crucial times this season and a fast start is imperative at the Stadium of Light.
4. Hit Some Long Passes over the Top
Arsenal should adopt a more direct approach and hit some long passes over the top of a compact midfield and behind the Sunderland back four. It will be Arsenal's quickest way of opening up the Sunderland defense and preventing them from pressing Arsenal in possession.
O'Neill is an expert at setting his teams up to stifle the opposition. The 1-0 home win over Manchester City on January 1st showed that Sunderland are not afraid to pack nine men into their own half on their own pitch.
However, the Gunners have the pure speed to expose this approach thanks to pacey duo Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Without stretching the field, Arsenal will find it difficult to break Sunderland down.
3. Double-Team James McClean
When they aren't venturing forward, Arsenal will need to ensure that they double-team rising talent James McClean. Sunderland's revival has coincided with the emergence of McClean. He has the straight line speed and trickery to torment Arsenal's full-backs.
The former Derry City wing wizard's direct pace is the key to Sunderland's counter attacking style. McClean has the versatility to switch flanks and attack either side of a defense.
Either the normally dependable Bacary Sagna or traditional central defender Thomas Vermaelen will need help to subdue the skillful 22-year-old Irishman.
2. Crowd out Stephane Sessegnon
Arsenal's top priority has to be nullifying the considerable threat posed by dynamic attacking midfielder Stephane Sessegnon. The cultured link player is one of the best-kept secrets in the Premier League.
Sessegnon has the pace, intelligence, touch and technique to both provide and score goals. The former Paris St. Germain prodigy possesses a powerful shot and is a clinical finisher. He ties together Sunderland's attacking play and adds crucial quality to their game.
Sessegnon is at his best when running at pace towards a defense. Crowding him when in possession is the best way to limit the damage he can cause. Containing him and taking away his space will reduce Sessegnon's shooting opportunities and prevent his quick passing and movement that has led to several goals recently.
The Sunderland Echo has reported some concerns over Sessegnon's fitness. However, as Sunderland's best player, Arsenal should bank on seeing Sessegnon in action at least at some point. If he is able to start the game, Sessegnon will represent the biggest danger to the Gunners.
1. Target Sunderland's Full-Backs
The Gunners should feature Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain as much as they did against Blackburn. Targeting Sunderland's weak full-backs could be the quickest route to a goal.
The Black Cats have the cumbersome Phil Bardlsey at right back and either converted midfielder Kieran Richardson or new loan signing Wayne Bridge at left-back.
Arsenal must their speed in wide areas to take advantage of Sunderland's lack of pace and positional discipline at full-back. The Gunners need to again emphasise Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain as prime outlets every time they go on the attack.
This Has the Potential to Be a Trap Game for Arsenal
With their defensive approach and pace on the counter, Sunderland are the kind of team that Arsenal have frequently slipped up against during the last three seasons. This certainly has the potential to be trap game for Arsene Wenger's side.
The Gunners can not afford another let down. After beginning 2012 with three straight league defeats, Arsenal have gone unbeaten in their last three matches. However, Martin O'Neill's rejuvenated team will definitely provide a true examination of Arsenal's mini revival.
With the first leg of the crunch Uefa Champions League encounter with AC Milan looming, the Gunners must avoid losing focus and missing out on precious points in their quest to make the top four.