Match report: Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland, 8/18/12

For a third consecutive season, Arsenal opened up their Premier League campaign with a draw. Going back to last season, Arsenal now have gone 4 consecutive home matches without a win--their longest stretch of home games without a win since August 1995.

Arsenal dominated the possession/passing battle throughout the match. The Gunners had 70.1 percent of the possession and completed 637 passes to Sunderland's 222 passes. Arsenal's passing completion rate was an impressive 91 percent, while Sunderland completed 76 percent of their passes. It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which Arsenal out-passed Sunderland. In fact, in the figure below, I break up the game into 18 different 5-minute increments (e.g., minutes 0-5, minutes 6-10) and compare Arsenal and Sunderland's passing statistics. Sunderland completed more passes than Arsenal in only a single 5-minute period of the match. The height of the red bars indicate the number of passes Arsenal completed in each 5-minute increment, and the height of the black bars indicate the number of passes completed by Sunderland in each 5-minute increment.

Of course, a disparity in raw passing statistics can be misleading if most of the passing is concentrated in the middle and defensive thirds of the field. But, Arsenal also completed far more passes in the attacking third than Sunderland: 162 passes completed out of 201 attempted for Arsenal and 35 passes completed out of 61 attempted for Sunderland. Arsenal's passing dominance in the attacking third unsurprisingly resulted in far more shots than Sunderland: 23 total attempts for Arsenal vs. 4 total attempts for Sunderland.

The match data presented above would seem to suggest a far more unbalanced game than was actually the case. Sunderland defended very deep and were difficult to break down (see Kyle's post for more on the tactics employed in the game). Thus, while Arsenal were able to complete a lot of passes in the attacking third and generate far more shots than Sunderland, Sunderland restricted Arsenal to very few genuine scoring chances. In fact, only 3 of Arsenal's 23 shots were on goal, while 2 of Sunderland's 4 attempts were on goal. Both of Sunderland's shots on target came in the first 10 minutes of the game, the most dangerous of which came from a James McClean breakaway. Sunderland's only other 2 attempts both occurred later in the first half. Arsenal's best chance came in the 83rd minute when Santi Cazorla cleverly slipped a pass between 2 Sunderland defenders to set up Olivier Giroud only 8-10 yards from goal. Giroud could not convert, as his strike sent the ball wide past the post.

Arsène Wenger and Arsenal supporters are likely disappointed with the result, but they are almost certainly encouraged by some of the players' performances, especially Cazorla. The new signing was far and away Arsenal's most dangerous player. He led all players in several statistical categories. He created 7 scoring chances (no other player created more than 2). He completed 36 passes in the attacking third (next on the list is Mikel Arteta with 25 passes in the attacking third). And, Cazorla had more shots (4) than any other player. Gervinho was also impressive, especially in terms of his willingness to take on defenders. He had 10 successful take-ons (Theo Walcott ranked second with 5 successful take-ons). However, Gervinho attempted 20 take-ons, far more than any other player (Walcott again ranked second with 7 take-on attempts).

Arsenal's three big signings--Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, and Giroud--all featured in today's game. In addition, Abou Diaby returned from injury to play over 45 minutes for Arsenal for the first time since May 2011. The game was also Per Mertesacker's first match for Arsenal since he suffered an injury in early February. Given the new and recently repaired components in Arsenal's system, it would be premature to pass judgment at this stage.