Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland
Arsenal failed to score at home for a third successive game on Wednesday night, as once again the Gunners could not break down a stubborn defensive performance from their opponents.
Sunderland came to the Emirates knowing that a point would secure their Premier League statusfor another season and did just that. Unlike Swansea’s decision to set up with an ultra-defensive system there was no real surprise when Dick Advocat’s men allowed Arsenal to have the lion’s share of possession, wasted time and largely refused to move out of their two banks of four. Such was Sunderland’s desire to secure the point required and avoid the anxiety of a final day fight for survival, that Jermain Defoe played most of the game in the left back position.
Wenger went into the game knowing these were the tactics Sunderland would employ, yet his side appeared ill-equipped to overcome them. For the third straight home game, Arsenal’s attacking play was mostly painfully slow, lethargic and devoid of ideas. In such situations the onus is on the attacking team to move their opposition out of position and quickly exploit the space created. The attacking game needs to be fast and crisp, not slow and cumbersome. Players who like to put their foot on the ball, assess the options around them before making a pass are a hindrance in such circumstances as they slow the attack down and allow the opposition to get back into their two banks of four and defend deep.
What is required is an injection of pace, a player prepared to take on the defender and surge past them, turning the opposition defence, forcing them to face their own goal. The decision not to start with Theo Walcott was therefore rather surprising. When the Englishman did come in the second half, along with the more direct Thomas Rosicky, Arsenal looked at their most dangerous, with Walcott forcing the goalkeeper into two saves and chipping the ball over him on another occasion, but having not put enough power on the effort, saw the ball cleared off the line.
Arsenal also lacked movement in the final third. When faced with these defensive tactics the Gunners tend to fall into the trap of reaching the opposition penalty area and then just slowing passing the ball across the box, playing into the opposition’s hands. The Arsenal players then either attempt a one-two which, as the penalty area is full of opposition players, invariably results in the attack breaking down, or they cross the ball into the congested box, for the outnumbered Giroud to attempt to get on the end of it. The same tactics are employed throughout the game, despite the fact they are not working, leading to much frustration amongst the fans.
Wenger never seems to want to change his formation in such circumstances, by switching to two up front and just sticks with the same game plan in the hope that it will just all work out in the end. If the manager wants to steadfastly stick to the same system, he should at least ask his attacking midfield players to make runs into the box once the team have reached the opposition penalty area. On Wednesday night the midfield was far too static, offering no real option to the man on the ball. A run into the box can pull a defender away, creating space and options for the player in possession, as well as confusion amongst the opposition.
On the few occasions the Gunners did this on Wednesday, they created opportunities, most notably in the first half, when Jack Wilshere’s looped balls over the top of the Sunderland defence saw Ozil and then Giroud get in behind the opposition, but unfortunately neither could take the chance, firing wide of goal.
Giroud’s movement should also be addressed by the manager. The French striker doesn’t do enough when Arsenal have the ball in wide areas, to get on the end of crosses. Far too often he remains static when he should be making a run across goal, towards the near post, potentially taking defenders with him and creating space at the far post for a teammate to have an attempt on goal. The one occasion Giroud made such a run in the second half, he steered Bellerin’s cross towards goal and forced the goalkeeper into a fine save. Other than that, Giroud was again largely ineffective, ultimately a static striker is far easier to defend against than one who is constantly on the move.
At the final whistle, the statistics of 75% possession and 28 shots for the Gunners suggested they had deserved to win the game, but in reality Arsenal hadn’t done enough in the final third to make the breakthrough. In fact it could even be argued that Sunderland had the best opportunities to win the game with Steven Fletcher denied by two excellent saves from Ospina when through on goal and also failing to hit the target from close range, having ghosted in behind Koscielny.
Arsenal are limping over the line. Since securing a top four finish their level of performance has dipped considerably and Wenger must be worried. This is a side he expects to challenge for the title next season, yet they have struggled to cement third spot despite only requiring one victory from their last three games. Going into the final match of the season still requiring a point to make certain of direct qualification to the Champions League is not what Wenger would have wanted with the FA Cup final looming the week after. The manager needs to coax two more performances from this team before the season ends but is clearly struggling to do so. Time is of the essence and Arsenal must therefore quickly improve as an attacking unit or their season will end in great disappointment.