AFCB’s tactics guru Andrew Enloe gives us his analysis of Arsenal’s draw at Sunderland…
Saturday’s match against Sunderland was a hugely frustrating affair.
It seemed that the entire world knew that the final whistle would go when the ball was cleared one last time. A huge sigh of relief was followed by the realization that, yes, we had just conceded a goal and couldn’t really feel any sense of injustice. Football can be an absolutely mental sport, and these things will happen.
Despite the way the match ended, there are huge positives to take from the performance of the team.
The team lined up in the 4-2-3-1 we’ve seen implemented this season. Wilshere and Song supported the attacking quartet of Fabregas, Arshavin, Nasri, and Chamakh. In the first half hour Arsenal seemed content with aggressive pressing (see Cesc’s goal), ceding the territorial advantage to Sunderland, and hitting them on the break. And while Fabregas was present the team always looked dangerous. Sunderland didn’t play as high a defensive line as Bolton did (which allowed Fabregas to ping passes in behind their back line all day), but it still looked likely that Arsenal would get a goal on the counterattack.
Unsurprisingly the game changed with the departure of Fabregas. He and Van Persie (who likes to drop deep and distribute from there) contribute more to the counterattacking side of Arsenal than any other players in the squad. With both of them out the strategy had to change.
Rosicky played a more subdued role in his time on the pitch in the first half, resulting in a midfield that was too flat for my taste. When he did get forward, he often occupied the same position as Nasri or Arshavin. At this point the midfield was a bit toothless going forward and didn’t keep possession very well at all.
After Song was sent off in the second half for a few too many daft fouls, the midfield comprised Rosicky, Wilshere, Arshavin, and Nasri. They are all skillful players who held the ball admirably in the second half, but they also generally try too hard (Wilshere in particular) to force difficult passes. Though I was crying out in the pub for him to introduce the Brazilian at the half, Wenger brought on Denilson in the 58th minute. My first column outlined what he does better than anyone else in the squad; making the simple pass, making himself available for a pass, and keeping the move ticking over. His introduction in the 58th minute allowed Arsenal to keep possession comfortably and threaten the Sunderland goal.
Even with ten men the Arsenal midfield controlled the play for the majority of the second half, and they owed much of that to the absolutely superb display from the central defensive partnership of Koscielny and Squillaci. It has been a long time (probably the 2005/06 Champions League campaign) since I witnessed an Arsenal defensive display that good. Squillaci went to the ball more, while Koscielny seemed content controlling the penalty area. Their understanding on a few offside traps was outstanding.
Koscielny in particular was absolutely flawless in dealing with the long balls from Sunderland’s midfield. Even when Sunderland finally brought on a player who could cross (Andy Reid) the young defender excelled. In addition to his grit, Koscielny consistently played his clearing headers to Arsenal players and made 7 interceptions. He didn’t just hoof it out; he turned possession over from Sunderland to Arsenal.
Squillaci made me forget that a player as dangerous as Asamoah Gyan was even on the pitch. It was truly a sight to behold.
The fullbacks were excellent as well. Clichy’s aggressive running down the left was an excellent outlet, while Sagna didn’t let anything down his side.
Almunia has also grown in confidence since Koscielny made himself a fixture in the back line. He mopped up everything not headed out by the Frenchmen in front of him.
This makes for an incredibly strong spine of the team. The most encouraging aspect of this defensive performance is that it was a facsimile of the display at Blackburn. There is every chance that there are more strong performances from this Arsenal back line in the future. It’s not a fluke.
- Chamakh and Van Persie are both excellent players, but they definitely have different strengths. Chamakh is superb in games where the opposition are sitting deep. He has excellent aerial ability and puts himself about physically. He is what we need against Blackburn and Sunderland. However, I believe Van Persie would be best used in matches where the focus is quick counterattacking. Just look at his relatively subdued performance as a relatively conventional striker in the conservative Dutch team at the World Cup. Later in the season the rotation of Van Persie, Chamakh, and Bendtner is going to be key.
- Turning a blind eye from his poor penalty, Tomas Rosicky continued his excellent start to the season, misplacing one pass for the duration of the match. As mentioned before, he grew more influential in the second half; compare his activity in the first half with that in the second.
- Though I was absolutely gutted to see Bent’s equalizer, it’s obvious that I see more positive things to take from the game than I do negative. Overall it was very encouraging and the team will have better luck than they did on Saturday.
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