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Talking Tactics: Arsenal (H) - Sunderland Solid But Stupid

Individual errors from Wes Brown and Vito Mannone cost Sunderland dearly as the Black Cats slumped to a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Stadium of Light.

Gareth Copley

Line up

Gus Poyet made two changes to the side beaten 8-0 by Southampton a week ago. Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell returned to first team action for the Black Cats, replacing Connor Wickham and Jordi Gomez respectively.

Santiago Vergini retained his place at right-back despite his struggles at St Mary’s, meaning new signing Anthony Revelierre had to settle for a place amongst the substitutes.

Sunderland lined up in their usual 4-1-4-1 formation.


Arsenal returned to Premier League duty on the back of a dramatic late turnaround against Galatasaray in midweek. The Gunners flipped the tie on its head in the closing minutes on Wednesday evening to record a remarkable 2-1 victory over the Turkish giants, but the rigors of Champions League football will no doubt have left Arsene Wenger’s side somewhat jaded ahead of their trip north to the Stadium of Light.

Wenger made two changes to the side that drew 2-2 at home to Hull City last weekend. Mikel Arteta replaced the suspended Jack Wilshire in centre-midfield, and Callum Chambers returned at right-back with Hector Bellerin dropping to the bench.

Arsenal lined up in their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation.



Sunderland conceded eight last time out, so it’s a given that this week in training there will have been special focus on ensuring the side were prepared defensively for the visit of such an attack-minded outfit. However, Arsenal are noticeably vulnerable in defensive areas themselves, and they can be got at with the correct approach.

Without the ball Wenger encourages high-pressing from his side- especially his front four, but for this approach to be effective it’s vital that Arsenal’s defence maintain a high line, and so far this season they haven’t been. Subsequently Arsenal have often appeared unbalanced, and have been caught leaving large amounts of space centrally which can be overloaded and exploited on the counter.

I’d like to think this is something Poyet will have targeted as a way to gain a positive result from the game, especially considering Arsenal’s distinct lack of metal in their current sitting midfield players.

One thing is for sure, the Sunderland manager will certainly have called for a positive reaction from his players on Saturday following the level of performance last weekend.


Sunderland made a positive start to the game and looked hungry and determined to right the wrongs of last weekend.

In defensive phases, Sunderland were approaching the game correctly. Without the ball Poyet’s side were retreating into a narrow and compact shape making sure to defend only the width of the box - this is the perfect approach to neutralise the attacking threat of a side such as Arsenal. Sunderland were allowing Arsenal to take up advanced wide positions, but the level of danger this was posing was minimal considering the side’s only real attacking aerial threat – Olivier Giroud- was absent from the game.

Arsenal crosses

As you can see from the visual above, this defensive approach was extremely successful over the course of 90 minutes with Arsenal only managing to connect one out of 22 attempted crosses. In fact, up until the first goal, the Gunners had only been allowed three attempts on Sunderland’s goal all of which were from long range and were off-target.

Sunderland weren’t controlling the play, nor were they showing any real signs of taking the lead, but they were neutralising Arsenal and had a very steady foothold in the game.

The opening goal nevertheless you cannot legislate for, and it’s another individual error that has really cost Sunderland. Like last weekend, Poyet’s side were playing ok before going behind, but were undone by a needless and careless mistake and a player of Wes Brown’s experience should know better.

Sunderland’s response to going behind was this week a lot more positive. For the remainder of the game I felt the side succeeded in maintaining their shape, and performed well defensively while pushing for the equaliser. Unfortunately however, it appears at the moment that Sunderland simply don’t have the tools to sufficiently threaten going forward.

From an attacking standpoint, the Black Cats were tepid, predictable and ultimately ineffective.  The final ball was nowhere near good enough on the day and the side looked altogether devoid of ideas.

The absence of Billy Jones has really told in the last two games. It’s clear that Poyet wants to play with two attacking, overlapping full-backs – and he has that in Patrick Van Aanholt- but the presence of Santiago Vergini at right-back on Saturday left Sunderland looking incredibly unbalanced.

Patrick Van Aanholt second half attacking influence.

PVA attacking

Santiago Vergini second half attacking influence.

Vergini attacking dash

As you can see there's a huge difference in the level of support offered by each full-back. Now I know that Vergini is a stand in right-back, and I'm not expecting the Argentinian to offer a serious attacking threat, the point is without the presence of an out and out right-back it then becomes difficult for your right-sided midfielder to have an influence on the game - and this showed in Adam Johnson's performance.

It's then that you look to the middle for answers - and again this is an area where Sunderland are lacking. Ki Sung-Yeung is a noticeable absentee in the team. The Korean brought a huge amount of real quality and creativity last season, and he's a player that I feel hasn't been sufficiently replaced.

For much of the second half Arsenal were operating with a makeshift defence, yet it was far too easy for them to sustain their clean sheet, and Wojciech Szczęsny was rarely threatened. There's a distinct lack of match winners, problem players and the kind of figure that can prove a handful for opposition teams. Players like Stephane Sessegnon once required special attention, but there's nobody there now that can pull apart the shape of a side and create space for others to work in.

As Sunderland chased the game there also appeared to be no real plan B, and the lack of attacking variety means Poyet cannot locate an opponents specific weakness and exploit it - he can only attack one way. This showed on the day as Sunderland continued to hopelessly bang on the door to no avail.

Another mistake late on by Vito Mannone handed Arsenal a second goal and the three points.


Sunderland again the masters of their own undoing in a game where I believe the Black Cats should have walked away with a point. Defensively, Poyet’s side were solid and Arsenal were failing to really threaten. Had it not been for those two unforced errors, Sunderland may have gained a more positive result.

That’s two defeats in a row now after what had been a steady start to the season. Sunderland have slipped into the relegation zone ahead of next weekend, but I feel that the real problem lies in recruitment rather than Poyet’s direct in-game tactics.

There simply isn’t the dimensions available to change a game. Emanuele Giaccherini and Ricky Alvarez are two players that could perhaps have provided some much needed attacking impetus on Saturday, and there absence was notable.

Poyet must shoulder some of the blame for not bringing in sufficient options to call upon, but until January, he must now figure out a way his current side can pose a threat.

The Uruguayan has a tough week ahead preparing for Crystal Palace next Monday, and it’s hugely important that Sunderland come away from Selhurst Park with at least a point.

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