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Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland: Gunners Start With A Draw

Premier League 2012-2013 / Game 1 / Emirates Stadium

Arsenal                                    0
Sunderland                             0

Arsenal began the new season with a disappointing draw at home to Sunderland. As expected, the home team dominated possession but a lack of sharpness meant the Gunners were unable to score and Martin O’Neill’s side left the Emirates with a deserved point for some resolute defending.

Arsene Wenger started with the team I’d predicted in the match preview. Lukas Podolski lead the line with Santi Cazorla playing in the hole behind him and Theo Walcott and Gervinho on either flanks. In defense, Carl Jenkinson got the nod at right-back.

Sunderland also started as expected in a 4-5-1 formation although there were some personnel changes. Sessegnon was fit to play so he started as the lone striker and O’Neill packed the midfield with Colback, Cattermole and Larsson with Campbell and McLean playing down the flanks.

The match started at a slow tempo, the Gunners unable to inject any pace into their attacks. In fact the first chance of the match fell to Sunderland when on 4 minutes, a half-hearted attempt by Per Mertesacker at playing offside allowed Mclean to run into the box only to strike his shot directly at Szczesny.

But as the first half ticked by, Arsenal started taking control with Cazorla and Diaby orchestrating proceedings from behind the strikers while Arteta distributed the ball from deeper in midfield.

Cazorla had a shot saved in the 5th minute. There was another opportunity on 19 minutes when Gervinho’s stellar work on the left saw the Spaniard meet the cut-back only to shoot wide.

Although Arsenal posed an intermittent threat in the first half, the overall build play was too slow and predictable to worry a disciplined Sunderland team. Cazorla played further up the pitch at the start of the match but as the first half progressed, the attentions of Lee Cattermole saw the Spaniard drop deeper to find space and time. This meant the strikers became increasingly isolated and had to come deep themselves thus making it easier for the visitors to defend with men behind the ball.

Also, the understanding between Arsenal’s three strikers was quite poor. There were a number of passes between Gervinho and Podolski that did not find their intended targets. With the midfield being pushed back by Sunderland’s pressing, it meant Arsenal were unable to exert any meaningful spell of pressure on the visitors.

Having said that, some of the combination play in the first half was exquisite. And ironically, despite dominating possession Arsenal’s best chances came on the break. When the ball was turned over, Arteta fed the ball quickly to Cazorla or Diaby who were able to exploit the space vacated by Sunderland’s midfield, both midfielders making dangerous runs toward goal.

In the 28th minute, Podolski and Cazorla combined well to set up an opportunity for Diaby. The Frenchman found space just outside the box but his shot was saved by the Sunderland keeper. There was another chance just before half time, Cazorla involved once more. This time he played a one-two with Arteta before releasing Walcott in the box but Theo’s resultant cross for Podolski was well blocked by Cuellar.

Arsenal were completely dominant in the second period and rarely allowed Sunderland to leave their own half. However the Gunners still suffered from slow passing and build up play and were increasingly forced to work the ball across the back. The other notable feature of the second half was that the full-backs were more involved in the forward play. Jenkinson made some overlapping runs on the right while Gibbs preferred to cut inside from the left.

Inspite of this, Arsenal were not creating many opportunities and Arsene Wenger soon made changes. Podolski was the first to be taken off, making way for Olivier Giroud. Five minutes later, Diaby was withdrawn for Ramsey and Arshavin came on late for Walcott.

To be fair, Giroud’s introduction did not affect the game too much as neither the full backs nor the wide men displayed any urgency in finding him with crosses. And until the 82nd minute, Giroud was virtually anonymous.

With 8 minutes to go, the Frenchman wasted a glorious chance to score on debut and hand Arsenal three points. Cazorla was involved again but it was Ramsey that started the move. The Welshman dropped a shoulder and found the Spaniard on the edge of the box. Santi turned with the ball and spotted good movement by Giroud inside the box and found him with a perfect ball. From close range though, Giroud shot wide when it looked easier to score.

The rest of the match petered out with Arsenal huffing and puffing but not really creating too much. In the end, a point was a fair result for Sunderland who stuck to their plan and frustrated an Arsenal side lacking sharpness.

In his post-match press conference, Arsene Wenger accepted that the passing was not as quick as it should have been.

Our basic fitness is alright but we lack sharpness and fluency at the moment to be dangerous in the final third. The few chances we had, we couldn’t convert them.

Sunderland always play the same way against us, in the final third and defensively, and if you’re not sharp enough to make the difference early in the game it becomes difficult.

After the match, the club announced the sale of Alex Song to Barcelona. Combined with Van Persie’s departure, the impact of Song’s exit should not be underestimated. The following tweet highlights the enormity of Arsenal’s task in replacing the contributions of these two players.

Regardless of the other issues surrounding these transfers, on the football pitch, Arsenal are likely to bear the short-term pain of these departures. Following Song’s exit, Arsene Wenger seems to be aware of the need to add more creativity in midfield.

… but in this game today we needed maybe one more creative player to be a bit more accurate in the final third. There was not a lot of space left to our strikers, everything had to be created from our midfield.

With a tough fixture list awaiting us in September, the new signing/s need to arrive soon so the team can develop an understanding very quickly. Waiting until the last day of the transfer window could prove detrimental to our early season form.

Of course there were plenty of positives from yesterday’s performance as well.

Santi Cazorla looks the real deal, even though he didn’t see as much of the ball as I expected. Despite this, the Spaniard created seven chances and but for Giroud’s miss, Santi would have notched up an assist in his first league game for Arsenal. His close control was excellent and he rarely misplaced a pass. He also completed the most number of passes in the final third – in fact, the diminutive midfielder completed more passes in the attacking third than the entire Sunderland team (36 v 35).

Abou Diaby looked menacing at times when he came forward with the ball. He usually has a tendency to linger on the ball and try to dribble his way through, so it was good to see the Frenchman passing the ball a lot more today. If he can remain injury free for a few games, Diaby has the potential to terrorise many a Premier League defenses.

Gervinho caused Sunderland problems all game. But having worked himself into good positions on a number of occasions, the Ivorian either dallied or took shots himself when a pass might have been a better option. This is highlighted by the graphic on the right which shows each of Gervinho’s shot was blocked, indicating the close presence of a Sunderland player around him when he chose to strike the ball.

Except for a brief spell in the first half, Arsenal’s defense looked solid throughout the match. Granted we were not tested too much in this game. Nevertheless, it did seem as if Vermaelen and Mertesacker were content to let Sunderland have the ball in front of them and not lunge in and risk being turned. That discipline wasn’t always evident last season and while it’s still too early to make judgements, perhaps this is another area where Steve Bould’s influence will be felt.

Overall, it was not the result we had hoped for. Nevertheless, there was enough quality on show yesterday to suggest Arsenal are heading in the right direction.

What did you think about the match? Post your comments.

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