Arsenal vs. Sunderland: 6 Key Battles at the Emirates
One type who wish that Nicklas Bendtner was still playing for Arsenal and are relieved that he isn't allowed to play for Sunderland on Sunday. And the other type who are relieved that he isn't an Arsenal player and wish he could have played for Sunderland on Sunday, so that the first type could see how bad he really is.
Whoever you are and wherever you're from, if you're a Gooner, you must have nodded your head vigorously at some point during the previous paragraph.
With the international break happily behind us, Arsenal welcome Sunderland to the Emirates Stadium for yet another basement battle. Fifteenth against 16th (silver lining - we're 15th). It's an unhappy place to be, but we're there of our own doing. And although Sunderland are a club in some disarray at the moment, it isn't a fixture that necessarily has three points written all over it.
Our last three home games against Sunderland have thrown up two hugely frustrating nil-nil draws and a two-nil win (Bendtner scoring the first!). Even while playing at their place, we've missed penalties, had players sent off and conceded injury-time goals (in fact, all of those things happened in one game last season!).
And when it comes to current form, there really isn't much to choose between the two teams. Sunderland have one league win all season, but they haven't conceded more than two goals in any game. Arsenal, meanwhile, have won twice but have been models of fragility, unpredictability and instability.
Our injury list, while much shortened compared to the past, features three of our most important players—Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sagna. And the latter two will be out till the new year. Up front, we continue to rely excessively on skipper Robin van Persie for goals and inspiration. And as for the defense, well, I don't want to depress myself on a Friday, so I'll say no more.
However, top quality players don't become terrible overnight, and if we can iron out the small mistakes we've been making, we can definitely win this game.
Here are six key battles, most of which Arsenal need to win, to ensure that we take all three points.
6. Kieran Gibbs vs. Sebastian Larsson
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That’s a polite way of saying he didn’t think he was good enough. And in fairness, he was right. Larsson is a good Premier league standard player. But not the kind of top quality that Arsenal have boasted of over the years. However, on his day, he can hurt any opposition. He’s a tricky little customer on the right wing, plays a good final ball and is deadly from set-pieces.
Kieran Gibbs, who has received some criticism from me this season, will have his task cut out.
Firstly, while defending, he must keep Larsson in front of him as much as possible. That will discourage the delivery of crosses to a certain extent. Secondly, there should be no lazy tackling to give away cheap fouls in dangerous areas from where Larsson can hurt Arsenal. And finally, Gibbs must attack Sunderland whenever possible down Arsenal’s left. Wes Brown, their right-back, is not the quickest around and will need Larsson’s help to counter Gibbs and Gervinho. The more Larsson defends, the less he will hurt Arsenal at the other end.
5. Aaron Ramsey vs. Lee Cattermole
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Aaron Ramsey’s rehabilitation is not yet complete. Three assists and a goal indicate a decent start to this season, but I don’t believe he is at the level he was at before he had his leg snapped by Ryan Shawcross. Any player who has been through a traumatic injury will carry a mental scar, however small, for a while.
Ramsey will be up against a midfield destroyer with a colourful reputation in Lee Cattermole. It will be as much of a mental battle as a physical one, but it is one that Ramsey must win. Arsenal have been short on creative impetus. The name "Fabregas" is still in the forefront of Gooner minds, and Ramsey is the man to banish the demons. He must shoulder the attacking responsibilities with van Persie and win the battle against Cattermole.
4. Gervinho vs. Wes Brown
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It would probably be harsh to say that Gervinho has flattered to deceive this season, but at the same time, he has not had the impact that he could and should have had. He definitely has the tricks and the speed but has often made the wrong decision at the crucial moment.
Come Sunday, he will be up against a vastly experienced customer in Wes Brown. The former Manchester United man is an excellent defender, but injury and age have slowed him down. Gervinho must exploit this to the fullest and overcome Brown so as to provide service to van Persie and Arsenal’s other attackers.
Gervinho also needs to track back and cover for Kieran Gibbs, who has often been found wanting this season. All in all, a hard day’s work for the Ivory Coast man.
3. Theo Walcott vs. Kieran Richardson
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One of the best battles of the day will be down Arsenal’s right, between Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Sunderland’s Kieran Richardson. Walcott has made a fairly good start to this season and has been among the goals and assists. He possesses lightning pace, as does Richardson, who has also made a strong start.
Richardson may not be the best defender around, but he is a potent attacking threat. He has an outstanding left foot and will be dangerous with his crosses, as well as his long-distance shooting. It will be Walcott’s responsibility to track back and mark Sunderland’s left-back, and given Arsenal’s defensive lethargy this season, there is a risk that he too can hurt us from long range (anyone remember Ashley Young?).
On the opposite end of the pitch, Walcott still has some way to go to prove that he has what it takes to be a consistent performer at the highest level. And that really is the key word—consistency. He has often produced moments of genius, and his speed can take one’s breath away. But he must do it week in and week out before he can be ranked among the premier players in the world game today.
As Arsene Wenger has always said, the next game is the most important one. So, here’s looking at Theo making the next game his best one in an Arsenal shirt.
2. The Arsenal Defense vs. Stephane Sessegnon
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Read that name carefully because he’s going to be a top, top player. I’ve watched some of Sunderland’s games this season, and he’s looked a real handful. Normally deployed on the right wing but capable of playing anywhere across the front line, Sessegnon has been a real thorn in the flesh of opposition defenders.
He runs at defenders and is capable of going wide and delivering a cross or cutting in and having a shot.
And come Sunday, it will be no different. Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker and Jenkinson had better be on their A-game, otherwise the much-needed three points may remain a dream.
6. The Rest of the World vs. Steve Bruce
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Although he made his name at Manchester United and captained them for a number of years, I have always had a touch of sympathy for Steve Bruce. Never more so than at this moment.
First, he lost his best player Jordan Henderson in the summer transfer window. That was followed by last season’s marquee signing, Asamoah Gyan, packing his bags and leaving for the riches of the Middle East. Then it got much, much worse.
First, his team lost the local derby to Newcastle, at home. Then, they couldn’t win a game for the longest time. They also lost to lower league opposition in the Carling Cup. If that wasn’t enough, his experienced defender Titus Bramble went and got himself into trouble for assault and drug possession. And finally, his good friend Niall Quinn was moved on as chairman, leading to massive speculation that Bruce would be the Premier League’s first managerial casualty of the current season.
Bruce desperately needs a turn in fortune, but his good friend Arsene Wenger will be hoping that it doesn’t start this Sunday.