Arsenal face a stiff battle against renascent Sunderland on Saturday. Arsenal have only registered one win in the new year, have lost two and drawn one. They currently are sixth on the Premiership table, three points behind fourth-place Chelsea and two points behind fifth-place Newcastle United.
Meanwhile, Liverpool are breathing hard behind Arsenal on 39 points, just a single point behind in seventh place. The consensus is that fourth place on the Premiership table is open to all of these four clubs: Chelsea, Newcastle, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Due to the remarkable resurgence of Sunderland under Martin O'Neill, a few are even thinking they could finish in the top-four! As they say, while there is life, there is hope.
Sunderland certainly can hope, but they have to beat everything put in front of them, and they have Arsenal in their path on Saturday. Arsenal are also in their path in the FA Cup competition.
At the other end, Arsenal still fancy their chances at finishing in the top-four. Speaking to the press, the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, said the following, earlier in the week:
We still have real hope that we can finish the season the strongest. We have a good spirit and desire within the group – and we have quality. We know that with the position we are in we need an exceptional consistency, so that is the challenge we have in front of us at Sunderland.
Like we said of Sunderland, to achieve this goal, Arsenal have to defeat their opposition, starting with Sunderland at the weekend.
"Exceptional consistency," as Wenger puts it, will be key. Can they beat the best of teams? Can they overcome every hurdle that comes their way in the next three months? These are the big questions. Answers in the affirmative will secure their goal for them.
First Leg Matchup
When the two teams met in October, Arsenal overcame a resilient Sunderland by a 2-1 scoreline. In that match, Sebastian Larsson's goal threatened to derail Arsenal from their path of renaissance, which followed the North London side's woeful beginning to the season.
Arsenal needed nothing less than a victory in that match, after a 2-1 loss at Tottenham Hotspur had halted their brief resurgence.
That Sunday afternoon, Arsenal had come out blazing, scoring in the first minute, through Robin van Persie, and threatening to run away with the match. Arsenal created bucket-load of chances in the first 20 minutes alone, but took only the one.
Robin van Persie scored Arsenal's first goal in the first minute when the two teams met in October 2011
Larson's direct free kick in the 31st minute brought the Black Cats into the match, their organization and counterattacks almost gave them the victory. It took an 83rd minute free kick from Robin van Persie to secure the crucial three points for the Gunners.
Steve Bruce was still the Sunderland manager then. Times have changed since.
Now Arsenal play Sunderland under similar circumstances.
It is a match they can't even afford to draw, and this is a big psychological pressure. With Liverpool threatening behind them, and with Newcastle proving to be this year's pesky upstart, Arsenal must take all their chances by the scruff of the neck.
Six key battles could prove the difference between victory and the gnashing of teeth this weekend. Let's examine them.
1. Psychological Battle
The odds favor Sunderland here. They have nothing to lose.
They are not a serious contender to any of the top-four spots. Right now, they are not in danger of relegation. So a loss will not have a drastic effect on them.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have only that solitary victory to their name referred to above. The fans are restive, no, angry. Only a victory for them is good enough.
A loss or a draw will make the voices of discontent more virulent. It is distraction and pressure the team can do without. So they'd go into the match seeking nothing less than victory.
While that could be the incentive for the team do dig deep and perform above normal expectation, it could also prove their undoing.
When a team can no longer enjoy its football, due to the fact that it has absolutely to win its matches, trouble is not far away.
Moreso, when it toils and the breakthrough refuses to come. This was what happened at Bolton Wanderers, a match the Gunners controlled, but could not turn into the necessary three points.
As far as the psychological battle goes, therefore, we have to give the edge to Sunderland.
2. Teleological Battle
This is a strange term to use here, but I use it in the sense of the overall unraveling of the match time, that is, the 90 minutes of on-field battle.
Arsenal's custom is to start fiercely and fast.
When things go well, Arsenal normally score their goals early.
The first 15 minutes of the match are crucial to Arsenal. They then tend to ease off the gas in the middle 15 minutes and then attempt to build again in the final 15 minutes of the first half.
When Arsenal are chasing the game at halftime, they tend to recreate the above scenario at resumption.
In the second half, Arsenal's problems normally begin in the final two 15 minutes sets. They, especially, have a habit of throwing games away in the final five minutes, although they have also snatched some equalizers and match-winning goals within these final minutes.
For Sunderland, then, the key is not to concede in the first or final 15 minutes of the first half. If Arsenal are unable to score in the first half, Sunderland will likely pack the bus in the second half. It is what gave them victory against Manchester City.
The onus to manage teleological time, therefore, is on Sunderland.
Arsenal will likely be the aggressors in this match. Sunderland will sit back and try to look for the sucker punch, through swift counterattacks.
Whoever manages to control the teleology of the match is likely to come out the victor. I give the edge to Sunderland.
3. Battle of Formations
It is fast becoming a habit of some Arsenal fans to declare Arsenal formation-challenged. This is far from the truth. Let me quote again from my review of the Bolton match.
The team controlled possession.
The team knew how to regroup and recommence attacks.
The team modulated well, that is, it attacked through difference avenues—overlapping centre-backs (only Barcelona currently does the same), modulating front three, pivoting midfielders, use of the false nine decoy—it was a dynamic display. A great positive, which the team can build upon.
Arsenal have done interesting things with their movement in the last two matches. Take overlapping centre-backs for example.
This is what brought Arsenal their third goal in the Aston Villa FA Cup match, where Laurent Koscielny's overlapping run, reminiscent of a full-back's, into the Villa penalty box, drew the foul that gave Arsenal the penalty that resulted in the game's winning goal.
At Bolton, each of centre-backs overlapped strategically, again, as though they were full-backs. The only difference here is that they did it through the middle.
Traditionally, centre-backs are center-halves, meaning that, technically, they are not supposed to go pass the center line (although the name is also a British way of referring to these positions).
When either of the center-backs has the ball, the opposition does not normally expect them to drive forward as deep as Arsenal's pair has done in the last two matches.
The opposition tend, therefore, not to put early pressure on the possessing centre-back.
This allows the player to drive forward, and by the time the opposing players realize what is happening, the player is deep in the opposition half.
They are left with the choice either to abandon the decoy runner they're tracking to then close down the centre-back, or stick with their player and leave the overlapping centre-back to continue his run. This disorganizes the opposition in either case.
Currently, only Barcelona utilizes this strategy.
In the last two matches, Arsenal seem to have abandon their 4-2-1-2-1 (4-2-1-3, or 4-2-3-1) formation for a fluid 4-3-3, where the middle three modulate freely and the top three do the same.
Robin van Persie has used the false-nine strategy with devastating effect. This is the exact strategy to use when the opposition decides to man-mark him.
And no, it doesn't reduce his effectiveness, it enhances it. It is the same reason Messi is difficult to mark.
Encouraging signs, therefore, have been on hand in Arsenal's performance in the last two matches. Constant, clever movement is key to their success.
Movement off the ball rather than on the ball was more devastating to Blackburn in their 7-1 defeat.
Pay attention to Arsenal's movement in this match.
What Martin O'Neill had brought to Sunderland since his advent is disciplined organization.
It is an open secret that the 4-5-1 formation is the death knell of attacking 4-4-2 (which is basically 4-3-3 or the variation therefore when in attack) and 4-3-3.
Simply pack the bus, through a two lines of four and five bodies and throw your bodies at every shot in front of goal. This strategy has frustrated even the best of teams.
Add to this brilliant goalkeeping and the attacking team needs the help of luck, otherwise, they are doomed to a frustrating 90 minutes. This was how Wolverhampton Wanderers earned their draw at the Emirates.
The discipline O'Neill has brought to Sunderland is the reason for their recent success. Don't put it past them to frustrate Arsenal in this match. If they can manage not to concede, they could even come out the victors in the match.
So which of the two formations will win the day?
I don't know.
But I know this. It will be whichever team luck favors. For while packing the bus can often prove effective, it often can as well prove futile.
4. Battle of Set Pieces
In the first leg, Sebastian Larsson and Robin van Persie dueled to a draw, both scoring from superb free kicks.
Arsenal still have problem with defending corners, and they don't often score from them either. This could prove their undoing in the match.
I give the edge to Sunderland.
Robin van Persie scoring through a free kick against Sunderland.
5. Battle of Key Players
This is where Arsenal's advantage lie.
Beside the clever Stéphane Sessègnon, Sunderland do not boast of any real stars. They make up for this by disciplined organization. Sebastian Larsson could prove dangerous on any set piece close enough to Arsenal's goal.
Up front, Arsenal have Robin van Persie as the arrowhead of their attack, the pacy and tricky Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who could start again in this match) and the enigmatic Theo Walcott, who, when in form, can be devastating to the opposition.
In the midfield, Arsenal have the trio of either Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Alex Song, or Tomas Rosicky, Arteta and Song.
Arteta's performance in this match will be key, because Arsenal would need to control possession in the midfield, and Arteta is essential to this.
Rosicky had a good game against Blackburn and could start again. While Ramsey is skillful and hardworking, he is not efficient.
What defensive quartet will Arsenal field?
If Bacary Sagna starts, then Francis Coquelin could be out. Meaning that Thomas Vermaelen could play on the left full-back position, with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Kosciely manning the centre-back positions.
The back four need maximum alertness on set pieces to ensure Arsenal do not concede through those.
Up front, Arsenal need to recreate their form against Blackburn.
The edge here is clearly and overwhelmingly with Arsenal.
Sometimes, when all is said and done, goalkeepers can prove the difference between victory and defeat. Simon Mignolet has been outstanding for Sunderland this season, helping the team to be one of the hardest to beat at home. Arsenal are certainly not going to find it easy to put the ball past him.
Wojciech Szczesny has been good, but he hasn't been at his best lately. It is incumbent on him that he remains alert in this match and that he comes through for the team when the time of need comes.
There may be a surfeit of those, the goalkeeper who rises to the occasion may prove the saving difference for his team.
Arsenal have to take their destiny into their own hand. To finish in the top-four, they have to beat every team put in front of them from hence forth.
Sunderland need only to maintain their shape and disciple to come out with a result in the match. What's more, they could even win it. After all, they play at home.