Arsenal vs. Sunderland: Review, Player Rating of the Gunners' Opening 0-0 Draw
I suspect a sense of envy and anxiety could not but hover over the minds of Arsenal faithful by the midway point of the 2012-13 English Premier League opening fixtures.
At this point, only Arsenal appeared to be toiling in vain as far as goals were concerned. Here's how the results of these fixtures read at this point.
By the 81st minute when Olivier missed a gold-gilded chance, the results were thus:
In a sense, Arsenal failed to take care of the business on hand. It must be said that this result favored Sunderland more than it did their host.
Saying this, though, is only to the extent that one must make a critique in a pragmatic and dispassionate way. This is different than saying that the team played poorly, a statement that surely must be inaccurate, even entirely false.
What we must realize is that although this wasn't necessarily a bad result, we did miss the chance to get the wind into our sails as quickly as possible.
As we reflect on the match, we must be cognizant of the positives and negatives of the match's outcome. On the one hand, for example, there's more pressure to win away at Stoke City next week, a pressure that I must say would have been different had we won this match.
On the other hand, this is an example of the task ahead. Sunderland are an exemplar of well-organized sides. We must remember how they frustrated Manchester City last season and even ran away with a surprising victory.
I must say, I thought the team did well, bar the lack of goals, of course.
I review the rest of the match in the following slides.
Lineup and Formation
This was Arsenal's starting 11:
The lineup was the usual 4-2-3-1, which I prefer to call 4-2-1-3 as the traced triangle would show:
When the changes were made sometime in the final quarter of the match, Lukas Podolski gave way to Olivier Giroud, Gervinho reverted to the right so that Andrei Arshavin could play on the left flank when he came on for Theo Walcott. He was biased towards the center, swinging inward in the false-11 role.
Ramsey's introduction altered the inner triangle to a 1-2. In essence it was inverted to favor two attack-minded midfielders (Cazorla/Ramsey) and one defensively minded one (Artera).
All in all, the lineup was solid enough. Defensively, except for the scare in the fourth minute, Sunderland never really got behind the Arsenal defense.
Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson managed their roles quite well. Arsenal's midfield was very dominant in the match, and the attack fashioned out sufficient enough chances to have won the game.
In goal, Wojciech Szczęsny was more of a spectator than a participant. He was, of course, called into action in the fourth minute, a test he passed with flying colors.
Arsenal opted for a measured-and-methodical approach to the game.
As a result, the tempo (that is the speed of the game) was rather on the slow side, although that doesn't necessarily mean that the speed of the passing was slow.
What it means is that the movement of the players in general was measured. Naturally, this affected the reaction of Sunderland players themselves.
I suspect that the concern here was two-fold: There was on the one hand the lack of full fitness that still affects the bulk of the squad, so that it wouldn't have been beneficial to play at a very high tempo.
There was secondly, the fear of falling victim to Sunderland's counterattacks, a possibility that had to be reckoned with since Arsenal's defense at the moment can't be said to be at the optimal.
As it turned out, the defensive approach of the team in general was excellent (more on that below).
In the second half, Arsenal increased the tempo of the game quite noticeably.
This complemented their control of possession and territory, two elements they'd assumed firm control of from the start of the game, especially after the first 15 minutes.
The rather slow approach to the game belied the fact that the team was able to carve out great chances in spite of this approach.
But for a couple of poor finishing, notably the mix-up between Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla after a a good work by Gervinho and Olivier Giroud's glaring miss after a through-pass by Cazorla, Arsenal would have won the game.
What this means is that there's cause for encouragement and confidence going forward, since the lack of goals today wasn't a result of lack of scoring chances. One has to fancy the fact that if the team continues to carve out chances, goals would inevitably follow.
We should note also that as fitness reaches an optimal level in the team as a whole, Arsenal will begin to play at the team's customary fast tempo, a tendency that tends to produce early goals and goal harvests for the team.
I wouldn't expect anything less than this natural development, although, of course, I'd think that wouldn't be in lieu of measured approach to subsequent games where the game plan and conditions call for it.
High but Staggered Line
Last season, I tended to use the term "the enigmatic V" without offering a cogent explanation.
I said it was enigmatic because, while it is a high line that presses and squeezes the area of skirmish, it is a high line that is difficult to beat because of the precise fact that it is staggered.
In being so, it isn't a flat line at all, so the opposition's attackers can't lurk within it suddenly to spring up and beat the normal offside trap that high lines tend to rely on.
In terms of its nature, though, it is rather ordinary, and yet, it maintains its enigmatic nature, because I suspect that many (including some managers) don't suspect the principle at work.
Here's how it looks like.
The reader with sufficient enough understanding of the game will recognize this as the original structural pyramid, which, as Jonathan Wilson notes, the modern game has inverted.
At its most intense, that is, when the attacking team is pressing for a goal, it tends to become a 2-3-5 formation.
You'd see it used a lot by Barcelona FC. In the games Arsenal dominated and won last year, we tended to use this manner of pressing.
It is the reason I tended not to be fazed by readers' fear that a high line is very dangerous, which it is. But again, as we see here, it may not be. This depends on how a high line is employed.
The reason it becomes enigmatic—in the sense of being difficult to beat—is because of the manner in which intelligent pressing (read: defending) is used. This I have indicated by the red arrows.
Notice that the black arrows indicate how the opposition's defenders and midfielders become preoccupied with closing up spaces in their territory and with man-marking.
In other words, their major attention is taken up by the need to maintain shape and by the need to give attention to the attacking players of the pressing team.
This pressure results in the fact that when the defensive team does win back possession, it tends not to have time to stitch up a cogent attack. As a matter of fact, it tends to give back possession rather too quickly by reason of individual errors.
In the second half of this match, Arsenal employed this manner of pressing—which really in essence is a defensively minded attack system. Sunderland, the reader would recall, spent 95 percent of the second half pinned back in their own half.
What affected Arsenal here (unlike in comparison to the Spurs game at the Emirates last season) was the speed of the team's attack, which, as I've noted above, was mitigated by the lack of full-match fitness of the entire team.
The fail-safe mechanism of this manner of defensively minded attack system is the staggered-ness of the formation, where strategic positioning ensures that loose balls are easily gathered up.
At the defensive end, the 2 + 1 positioning (which utilizes a sweeper in the shape of one of the central defenders) ensures that the high line in constant use cannot be beaten in one fell swoop.
When the opposition's attacker gathers up the ball he has to beat at least three people in order to get behind the pressing team's defense, hence the 2 + 1 appellation.
This means that while he could beat two, it becomes extremely difficult to beat the third man. Even if he were in position to do so, one of the previously beaten men (if not the two) would have recovered sufficiently enough to come to the aid of the third and final man.
This is the reason I call the system "enigmatic."
This analysis is a way of saying that Arsenal did well as a defensive unit.
Attack wise, it became progressively noticeable in this match that the midfielders and the forwards interchanged position through rhythmic movement off the ball.
This approach ensures that space is constantly being created, and passing options are always available for the possessor of the ball.
It also ensures that the opposition's defenders and midfielders find it difficult to keep constant tabs on the players whom they are supposedly marking.
If a team that plays this kind of system—such as Arsenal and Barcelona do—adds to its rhythmic movement speed of both the said movement and of passing, it becomes almost impossible to stop.
The verdict, then, is that Arsenal need to find a way to increase the tempo of their movement and passing in subsequent games, especially as the team's fitness improves.
Speed of movement and of passing was the reason behind Arsenal's victory over AC Milan last season in the Champions League rematch at the Emirates .
Plan Well-Executed by Sunderland
For Sunderland, this was a well-executed plan.
It was evident that they had come to play for a draw, although it was also, and rather apparent, that part of this game plan was to press a little higher as the match drew to an end in a bid to win set pieces in Arsenal's half.
It is difficult not to see that the rationale behind this was the thought that this could yield a goal and victory for them. Referee Chris Foy became too susceptible to Sunderland players' ploy to go to ground too easily at the slightest pressure.
This resulted in Arsenal having a higher percentage of fouls, even though in reality, Arsenal weren't rough at all.
This was the strategy that annoyed Arsene Wenger in the Champions League rematch between Arsenal and AC Milan, where, when the AC Milan players discovered that the referee could easily be fooled by their readiness to go to ground very easily, they employed the strategy to their advantage.
What's worse, the reaction this elicited from Wenger resulted in him receiving a three-match touchline ban in the coming Champions League campaign.
I thought a similar ploy was in evidence here.
It was apparently behind the thought that Sunderland (as they fancied) could win a well-placed set piece that would swing the result in their favor.
Then again, this is just my observation or supposition. In any case, I am not a fan of Chris Foy, so I admit that I could be biased.
A Taste of the Task Ahead
For Arsenal, this was an example of the task ahead.
Making top-four, or challenging for the title or any of the cup competitions, requires that the team must be above-average.
Arsenal weren't above-average today, even if we must admit that the team played well enough.
To win or to challenge for anything, neither the team nor the fans must be content with the notion that the opposition has parked the bus. The onus must be on our team to find the breakthrough in such a circumstance.
That's what true champions do.
And while I'm a believer in the "X" factor, which we often call luck, we mustn't hide behind it by any means.
There is, after all, such a thing as making your own luck. And doesn't an adage proclaim that heaven helps those who help themselves?
Yes, we will need luck in the campaign, but perhaps, we should focus more on making it for ourselves.
To challenge for the title or to make top-four, Arsenal must find a way to score goals in difficult matches. It is why the addition of Nuri Sahin could help the team.
As I have noted elsewhere, he is a dead-ball specialist. This came in handy for Borussia Dortmund in their push for the Bundesliga title in the 2010-11 season.
This same reason (difficult defensive lines) is why a deep-lying playmaker, such as Alex Song, could come in handy for the team. It is one reason why I'd be saddened by his departure to Barcelona if it happens.
What is necessary is that next week, despite the ruggedness of Stoke City, Arsenal must find a way to win. Short of that, we could find ourselves well behind the contenders for the title, even before the campaign kicks into real gear.
I must, however, qualify all this by saying that given the conditions at work in this match, I was rather pleased with what I saw of the team. This wasn't a bad performance at all.
Sunderland are never an easy team to beat, and although this was a home match for us, we must not lose sight of the effort the team produced here.
I should say that I really think that we have a chance to make something of ourselves in this campaign.
The inevitable narrative the media will advance after this match (I haven't had the chance to sample the news just yet) is that Arsenal's new signings failed to score.
A natural result of this would lead to questioning Arsenal's wisdom in thinking they could replace a "world-class" player with three untested ones ("from inferior leagues," a cadence malcontented Arsenal fans would undoubtedly supply).
The pitch of the narrative will rise higher and become more stringent if by chance he-who-must-not-be-named happens to score for the Devils this weekend, a team that in one sweep has gone from being respectful rival to a bitter foe.
I am sure that hearing this narrative of the media, many "fans" would then pick up their cudgels and go in search for some hapless soul to oppress, especially the ones that dare to enjoin patience and understanding.
I wouldn't be surprised (though honestly I'll be) to hear the sack-the-so-and-so chorus making the rounds even this early. As we know, for some fans, victory is the absolute element that makes them "fans."
(But there I go again on my habitual and seasonal rants. But I hope the point is apparent.)
I happen to believe that a good atmosphere helps a team. So I'd rather we have one this season than the poison that some "fans" delight in spewing.
I hope we all keep this in mind even in the discussion section of this article, which I very much hope for.
There's one thing we must keep in mind as we react to Arsenal's inability to score the maximum points available in this match.
It is the fact that these new players, who ostensibly failed to fire, played under the inevitable weight of expectation that comes with the start of a new career at at a new club.
This expectation, depending on how it is managed, can be a motivating factor or crippling one. It is therefore important that we all get behind our players this season, but not just the new ones, however.
Made an excellent save from the word go (as they say). He was, by and large, a spectator in this match, especially in the second half.
Discharged his duty excellently.
In fact, he played with calculated assurance. He is a good player who is bound to prove his critics wrong if he stays fit.
I already liked his pressing forward movement last season. We found it again here.
I like Vermaelen, and I think he will be a good leader of the team.
He does, of course, tend to "fly forward," but we must recall that that fault was what gave us victory over Newcastle at the Emirates last season.
If he can limit his flying forward to off-the-ball occurrences, what is a weakness will shed this aspect and be seen for the positive it is.
I thought he was quite alert in this game.
Mertesacker was, by and large, the sweeper in my so-called V-formation. He is an intelligent reader of the game (a fact many impatient fans miss).
He also tends to look for through passes into the midfield. He also isn't a bad tackler either. He had a solid game, I thought.
The air of confidence that Jenkinson has about him enables him to go about his business with sufficient enough efficiency.
Like Gibbs, he balanced his defensive and attacking duties quite well. Plus, he is a good crosser of the ball.
Abou Diaby was solid as one of Arsenal's defensive pivots in the midfield.
He is a world-class player who has been hampered by injury. Let's all pray (yes, the word) for his fitness this season.
If he stays fit, Arsenal would have little to worry about in the midfield. This was a very good return for a player who has been out with injury for rather too long.
Understated as usual, but again was the glue that held the midfield together.
Played 90 minutes, a testament to his fitness. For a debutant, this wasn't a bad match at all.
In the first half, he tended to stay behind the advance forwards as his role theoretically requires of him. He also tended to drift sideways.
In the second half, though, he was more direct in his approach. I thought he became more influential in consequence.
I am apt to say he was the most lively player on the pitch and proved very troubling for the Sunderland defense. Sometimes, he dwelled a wee too long on the ball, but overall, I liked what I saw.
Walcott was lively.
He is a good dribbler, but he needs to improve on his tendency to leave the ball behind. He needs also to improve on his heading ability.
He is a player who tends to send opposition defenders into panic. This was true of this match on occasion. Overall, he had a good match.
Podolski was a little understated, but seemed to relish Arsenal's one-two passing. He probably would have scored in the first half but for the mix-up with Cazorla, since I thought he was better positioned to take the shot than the latter.
In any case, I appreciated the desire from both players.
Podolski's movement was good, and this means that he was not content to stay on the tip of the attack at all, but—as situations required—drifted infield to help with building up attacks.
This looked like the Arshavin we used to know. When he is on top of his game, he can change a match and he almost did here.
I however observed something (a rather well-known weakness of his): his penchant for inaccurate passing, which often unbalances the team and causes it to scamper into a defensive shape when ill-prepared.
I suspect this is the reason why Wenger doesn't play him more often in the middle. A midfielder mustn't be susceptible to inaccurate passing a lot of the time.
Aside from this fault, I thought Arshavin did very well when he came on.
Ramsey is always lively and always tends to look for an opportunity to move forward. He also tends to look for forward passes. Besides all this, he is a tireless worker.
With the return of Diaby and the presence of Cazorla in advance midfield, Ramsey shouldn't experience the kind of burnout that overtook him last season.
An area he must improve on is his shooting technique.
Giroud demonstrated what kind of player he is—both in the Cologne game and here—through his intelligent movement.
In the former game, his attempts were on target (I'd like to say all). Here, unfortunately, he skewed his shot in a very good position.
It is a fact that we must not dwell on too long, nor must we say that were it that-person-that-still-we-are-reluctant-to-name, he would have buried the chance.
We should remember that even that person misses glaring chances, too.
Giroud will be fine.
Please, feel free to grade the players.
My aim is to provide comprehensive reaction and analysis to all of Arsenal games this season (at least hopefully).
If you like this or if you like my articles generally, please bookmark my page and be sure to check back after Arsenal games. There's no guarantee that my analyses will always make it to the front pages.
What I like most is readers' responses in the comments section, but realize that sometimes I tend to react rather bluntly to ill-informed comments or to unfair criticism, especially the abusive ones.
That said, I'm always willing to forget misunderstandings, provided the reader is not too offended. Where I think an apology is due, I make it. What I require is that disagreement be civil.
I also require that the reader who feels compelled to criticize me understand exactly what is it that I have stated. I do not have patience for criticism that is based on a misconception.
My sincere hope is that we develop a relationship through this journey that we are embarking on.
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