Arsenal travel to the Stadium of Light Saturday to take on Sunderland in the early lunchtime kickoff. David Moyes’s side are firmly rooted to the bottom of the table with just two points from their opening nine fixtures. They’ve become the first top flight club since Bury in 1906 to fail to win any of their opening nine league fixtures in consecutive seasons.
It’s been a disastrous start for the Black Cats in every phase of the game. They’ve conceded the third most goals in the league, scored the fewest and have the second worst goal difference behind only Hull City (who have conceded a whopping 15 in their last five league matches).
Having said all that, last week was one of the rare occasions I was fully confident of an Arsenal win and I honestly believe my overconfidence was the sole reason for the defeat. This is a match we should of course win but the home crowd will be loud and Sunderland will likely defend deep, just as Boro did last weekend.
Moyes will have noted how much we struggled against a Boro side defending deep with a flat midfield bank of five and will likely replicate that formation. Against West Ham last weekend Wahbi Khazri started on the right wing in attack but would press higher up the pitch when West Ham were in possession. Behind him Sunderland defended in roughly two banks of four. Who defended where in midfield seemed to change throughout the 90 minutes and it was difficult to determine exactly what Moyes’s instructions were.
Jack Rodwell played mostly as the deepest of a midfield three with Didier Ndong to his right and Steven Pienaar to his left but would often man mark Manuel Lanzini wherever he went, something we don’t often see in modern football. My guess is this time Moyes will go with a much more rigid 4-5-1 with the right winger dropping in to defend Monreal, the left midfielder dropping in to defend Bellerin and a compact central midfield three. Rodwell will likely sit in the space between his two center backs and Ndong and Pienaar to deny Ozil space between the lines.
I said in my preview to the Middlesbrough match the only way I saw them troubling us was if they started Adama Traore and looked to counter into him in the space behind our fullbacks. Their central midfielders I thought were functional and too uncreative to cause us any real problems when they tried to build up play with possession from back to front. Traore did end up causing us issues on the break for which Boro manager Aitor Karanka deserves credit. He also deserved credit for adding an additional center midfielder in Adam Forshaw and moving Gaston Ramirez from his usual #10 role to wide on the left, in effect switching from 4-4-1-1 to 4-5-1. That move made them more solid in the middle and meant they had two talented attackers in the channels to counter through.
Similarly to Boro, Sunderland have a very functional set of central midfielders. Against West Ham they used Pienaar, who is now 34, Rodwell, once a promising prospect but now mostly known for Sunderland having never won a game he’s started in, and Ndong, Sunderland’s only center midfielder that seems to be able to consistently complete a pass. Against West Ham Rodwell completed just 68.6% of his passes (24 of 35), a shocking total for a deep lying center midfielder. Pienaar was only slightly better completing just 72% of his passes (26 of 36). Rodwell has completed just 77.9% of his total pass attempts this season, Pienaar just 79.5%. Both of those are lower than Jermain Defoe’s 79.8%. Strikers tend to have the lowest pass completion rates other than keepers because they’re making pass attempts less likely to come off in areas high up the pitch. By contrast, our two deep llying midfielders likely to start, Coquelin and Elneny, have completed 89.3% and 92% of their passes respectively.
Ndong is unlikely to unlock a defense with a brilliant forward pass but he does complete 90% of his attempts, by far the highest of any player on the team. In other words Sunderland aren’t going to pose much of a threat building play patiently from the back and moving the ball up the pitch with nice combination play. They simply don’t have the midfield personnel for that style of play.
Unlike Boro however, Sunderland also don’t have a really pacey option who can run past defenders in the channels and make that transition from defense to attack all on his own in the way Traore did against us. Their wide options are Duncan Watmore, Wahbi Khazri and possibly Pienaar if he doesn’t play through the middle. Fabio Borini has been out since the end of August with a groin injury. Moyes suggested last week Adnan Januzaj was ahead of schedule recovering from an ankle injury but didn’t offer up a time frame of when he would return and it doesn’t appear he’ll be available this weekend.
Those players are decent enough but aren’t going to torment our defense the way Traore did bursting forward with the ball. Watmore is quick enough, works really hard and can combine well with Defoe around the box but won’t take on our fullbacks off the dribble. Januzaj clearly has talent but has sputtered since his excellent 2013-2014 campaign with Manchester United. Khazri is a decent crosser and can be a threat from set pieces but is unlikely to have the beating of Monreal or Bellerin either. His crossing ability in open play shouldn’t be much of a factor if we defend well given the 5’7” Defoe will likely be the lone striker.
I think Sunderland’s best chances are going to come from set pieces, where Lamine Kone is a threat in the air, and the individual ability of Defoe to create chances for himself. Even at 34 there are few players that can get a shot off quicker than Defoe. If he gets even half a step on a defender he’ll take the shot on and is often deadly accurate. Only Burnley average fewer shots on target per game than Sunderland’s 2.6.
This game will hinge on our ability to create meaningful scoring chances against a packed defense. Last weekend we struggled to combine in the penalty area and find space inside the box to take on shots that had relatively high probabilities of testing the keeper. I think a significant part of that was the absence of Cazorla. His ability to offer a passing option, take a touch and play a quick pass into gaps in the opposition defense forces the defense to alter their positioning constantly and maintain high concentration levels. With Coquelin and Elneny in midfield we circulate the ball just a little bit slower. This allows the defense enough time to effectively rotate their positioning and eliminate the pockets of space where our attackers can be dangerous. It’s looking like Santi is likely to miss out again with the Achilles injury so Coquelin and Elneny will need to speed things up a bit in possession.
Getting all three points going into next weekend’s clash with Spurs is crucial. The Sunderland crowd will give the home side a boost. If we can quiet them with an early goal and force Sunderland to chase the game, more space should open up for us to exploit in the attacking third. The longer it remains 0-0, or if Sunderland go ahead, they’ll be able to maintain a deep shape and make life difficult for us.
Our squad could be a bit thin for this one. Lucas Perez is out 6 to 8 weeks with the injury he suffered midweek in the EFL Cup win over Reading. Theo, Monreal and Santi are all doubts and will undergo fitness tests today. Encouragingly Wenger announced today Aaron Ramsey will return to the squad for tomorrow and Giroud will be available as well.