Arsenal vs. Sunderland: 5 Positives and 5 Negatives
On a sun-drenched yet perpetually frustrating afternoon at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal failed to break down a stubborn and disciplined Sunderland defence in what ended as a goalless draw on the opening day of the 2012-13 Premier League season.
The first game since Robin van Persie departed for the red half of Manchester featured plenty of attacking impetus from the home side, especially from the Gunners' new Spaniard, Santi Cazorla, who impressed in an advanced midfield role.
However, the game will come to be remembered for the hosts' struggles to beat a disciplined back four—Sunderland's Craig Gardner was on particularly good form in shutting the door.
With this one firmly in the annals of time, here are five positive and negatives takeaways from what was quite the gripping encounter.
Positive: A Clean Sheet
First and foremost, from a defender's point of view, Arsenal had a perfect game. Not conceding was the best way to inspire the home side's defence, who were rarely troubled by anything Sunderland could muster in an attacking sense.
From that perspective, the Mackems' manager, Martin O'Neill, will likely be berating his team for their lack of creativity in the final third.
Nevertheless, Wojciech Szczesny and his back four will gain heart from this display, despite having little to do. Carl Jenkinson, who gained his start in place of the injured Bacary Sagna, had a respectable, if unremarkable, 90 minutes—from which he will certainly benefit.
And because Szczesny and Jenkinson, alongside skipper Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and Kieran Gibbs, dealt with anything Sunderland threw at them today, they will take this result and the confidence it brings into next Sunday's (August 26th) trip to Stoke and the Britannia Stadium.
Positive: Santi Cazorla
While Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud may have endured inauspicious starts to their time in Arsenal's red and white, this man had something else entirely.
Santi Cazorla was Arsenal's standout player on an overly frustrating day for Arsene Wenger's men. Impressive throughout, the Spanish international rumoured by Sky Sports to be Arsenal's record signing was the architect of much of his team's attacking play with his intelligent brand of creative, passing football and eye for the perfect pass inspiring more than a few chances for his teammates.
He also had a couple of shots himself, being denied by Simon Mignolet—the Sunderland keeper had a hectic day between the sticks, but kept his composure to deny Arsenal's forwards the goal they so richly craved.
Despite the disappointment of the goalless draw, Cazorla was Arsenal's truest bright spark in north London on opening day—and Gunners across the world should be very, very excited about what this man has to offer in Arsenal colours.
Positive: Abou Diaby
With Arsenal.com reporting midfield colleague Alex Song is headed to Camp Nou to join former teammate Cesc Fabregas at FC Barcelona, the return of a healthy Abou Diaby will certainly deflect some of the sting of that second punch in a real one-two combination of Arsenal losses in the transfer window.
Indeed, his performance today was reassuring, to say the least, and it was brilliant to see Diaby back in Arsenal colours and in full flow.
Substituted halfway through the second half by Aaron Ramsey, Diaby had a fine game at central midfield, the highlight of which was an excellent strike on goal, which was only denied by a fine dive from Mignolet low to his right corner.
One feels that the best is still yet to come from Abou Diaby—but still, it's good to see No. 2 back, and let's hope he stays fit for good.
Positive: Arsenal's Wingers
Despite the lack of a final product to speak of, Wenger's wide men were impressive in today's encounter, flanking Cazorla with Gervinho, who played 90 minutes, and Theo Walcott, who played until being replaced by Andrey Arshavin for the final 15.
On numerous occasions, both men had to be accosted by two, sometimes three of their opposition, as both looked sharp. Walcott particularly was pacey and fought off advances from the Black Cats' defenders with his slalom runs—surprising, given his mid-week injury concerns.
While neither Gervinho nor Walcott could fire in the cross to put Arsenal ahead, both still looked in confident moods to start the new campaign, Gervinho especially. Given his troubles to adapt and settle last term, today's display can be seen as a positive omen going into next weekend's encounter in Staffordshire.
Positive: Considerable Attacking Pressure
Despite not being able to truly flummox a stout Sunderland defence, Arsenal's attacking pressure was considerable and remarkable at home today, originating often with Cazorla but also with the wingers.
The Gunners rarely let Sunderland into the game, with 14 shots for the home side to just three for the visitors.
Today's result notwithstanding, Arsenal's attacking displays will only grow and get better as time goes on and as the new signings fully bed down and learn to play with one another and their new teammates.
It's all a question of synergy and synchronicity—and on today's display, Arsenal have more to do, but they have a solid foundation already in place.
Negative: Oh, Olivier...
(The author's exasperation comes courtesy of an Olivier Giroud chance deep in the second half, wherein after a sumptuous one-two with Cazorla, the Frenchman sent his shot straight into the crowd.)
It capped a frustrating first half-hour of competitive football for his new club, as his side's best chance went begging courtesy of his boot.
As stated in the last slide, the new signings will need time to bed in and fully adapt to life in England—and indeed, in the Premier League. Giroud, on today's evidence, will certainly be thankful for the eight days of preparation afforded to him before next Sunday's trip to the Britannia.
It's far too early to call him a bust, and there is virtually no evidence to support such a claim—but all that can be hoped for is that Giroud doesn't let this horror show of a miss get to him and prey on his mind.
All he can hope for is to bounce back with a much better, much more comfortable performance against the Potters.
Negative: The Absence of the Final Ball
An all-too-familiar story, this one: Arsenal, as already stated, had created some excellent attacking pressure in the buildup, consistently and throughout.
However, too often when it came to that decisive cross, or that exquisite final ball to put an attacker on for an attempt on goal, or even just positional failures—Arsenal couldn't fit it all together.
Many of these things can and certainly will be worked on in training—improvements can be expected. But much of this, particularly the issues with crosses, is something which Arsenal fans often saw last season, much to their dejection.
Certainly, after great work from Gervinho, Walcott and even Kieran Gibbs to work the ball into the corners and create opportunities for crosses, those crosses were just too inconsistent or inaccurate.
We'll hope that in next weekend's encounter, the wingers have more success with their efforts to supply the attackers in the 18-yard box.
Negative: Shooting from Range Unnecessarily
Aaron Ramsey (pictured), Carl Jenkinson and even the impressive Santi Cazorla all tried their hands at speculative long-range assaults on Mignolet's goal. None of them were successful.
Now, this isn't to say shooting from range is necessarily a bad thing. But when you saw how well Cazorla had been opening up Sunderland's defence (notably for the aforementioned Giroud sitter), you would have hoped to take that momentum forward and pile on similar pressure in hopes of cracking the barrier once more.
Instead, the culprits fired off from distance—ridding Arsenal of what may well have been game-winning opportunities.
Speculation of this kind is unhealthy, but nevertheless, with a bit of luck, Arsenal will continue their onslaught more sensibly in games to come.
Negative: Failing to Capitalise on Mistakes
Despite Sunderland's stonewall defensive efforts, mistakes were made by Martin O'Neill's men. Too often for his liking, balls were given away too easily with lazy, aimless passing—balls Wenger's men should have converted into real chances but often could not.
Seb Larsson and James McClean, decent passers of the ball, were both to blame for some of these accidents, but time and again they went unpunished for their crimes.
Arsenal will need to be more calculating and ruthless in the future if they want to put games out of reach for their opponents. This will, again, come with time training at London Colney.
For the meantime though, Wenger can rightly be frustrated with his side's inability to capitalise on their opponents' unforced errors.
Negative: The Lack of a 'Cutting Edge'
For all their possession and chances on goal, Arsenal appeared just to lack that little bit of conviction; that tangible sense of confidence, fearlessness that will win them these difficult games.
Sunderland are by no means an easy team to beat, but these games at home against mid-table sides are the ones that championship-winning sides will put away.
Wenger will undoubtedly be ruing his sides' failures to capitalise this evening, as the Gunners had to settle for a single point, rather than the lion's share.
It is, after all, only the opening day of the season. Arsenal will have 37 more chances to take the victor's spoils in Premier League competition this season. Rest assured they won't win every last game, but they'll certainly pick up their share of points, based on this performance.
That is, if their strikers can begin to find the net with the profligacy and proficiency of their departed Dutchman.
Today, Arsenal showed the foundation of a strong, attacking football team, especially in the wake of news as damaging as the loss of the team captain. It's now up to Wenger to inspire this crop of players to go forward and take three points from these sorts of games—rather than just the solitary one.