The Story So Far
Arsene Wenger has plenty of reasons to raise a smile, not least the Gunners’ solid start to the season.
Following an on opening day defeat at the hands of Liverpool, Arsenal have gone on to win six of their last eight games, including a 3-0 demolition of title rivals Chelsea, to sit in 2nd place in the Premier League.
With players finding form and new signings appearing to have bed in nicely, Arsenal find themselves unbeaten in Champions League and EFL Cup action. A 0-0 home draw against Middlesbrough last time out - the visitors should arguably have left The Emirates with all three points - however, shows that the Gunners are far from infallible.
The Manager - Arsene Wenger
The Frenchman recently celebrated his 20th anniversary at Arsenal, and after two decades that has brought 15 trophies, Wenger is by far the most successful overseas manager to grace English football.
12 years without a league title, however, has seen Wenger come under sustained pressure - to the extent that fans inside of the Emirates have displayed banners urging him to leave the club.
Despite financial limitations placed on the club by their 2006 move to the new stadium, which saw star players leave the club, Wenger has delivered Champions League qualification year after year - Arsenal have had 20 consecutive top four finishes, in fact.
Back to back FA Cup victories in 2014 and 2015 eased the pressure, and with almost £300M spent over the last five years, Wenger will hope that more successful times are on the horizon.
Key Player - Theo Walcott
It has been a roller-coaster career for Walcott, once hailed as the (latest) saviour of English football, but regarded as somewhat of a failure in recent years.
Plagued by inconsistency and injuries, the winger has struggled to assert himself as a key player for Arsene Wenger. But with the club’s spending increasing and rumours linking the 27-year-old away from the Emirates during the summer, Walcott has burst into life once again and has started the season in red hot form, proving that he still has a future with the Gunners.
Five goals in nine league games to start the campaign means that Walcott has matched his totals from the last three season, while his eight goals in all competitions (from 13 games) beats his 2013-14 and 2014-15 campaigns and is just one short of last season’s total.
As always, Arsenal’s main strength is their ball retention and attacking incision. They average a 3rd high 56.7% possession and have made the 2nd most passes with 5414, averaging 601.6 per game with 84.9% accuracy.
While the Gunners have not been as statistically creative as other teams in the league, they do boast an impressive conversion ratio. With 19 goals scored from just 94 created changes, Arsenal score one in every five of their chances. And with an average of 2.1 goals scored per game from an average of 5.2 shots on target per game, Arsenal score 40% of their shots on target on average.
Unlike recent years, Arsenal are no longer a soft touch - or not to the extent that they have been, at least. They make the 2nd most interceptions per game (18.7) and catch their opponents offside more than any other team, with 3.2 per game. And while their average of 17.4 tackles per game ranks near the lower end of the league scale, the stats, including a league-low 9.1 fouls per game, show that Arsenal prefer to win the ball back through team pressing rather than outright tackling, and are very effective at doing so.
The addition of Shkodran Mustafi to the Arsenal defence has also brought some much needed steel. The German has formed an immediate partnership with Laurent Koscielny, and his averages of 2.8 tackles, 2.8 interceptions and 5.7 clearances per game make for impressive reading.
Despite this, Arsenal still do possess some fragility. They are conceding 10.9 shots per game, and while this number represents one of the league’s lowest averages, Arsenal themselves average only 14.6 attempts per game. With such a small difference between the two, the Gunners are gambling on maintaining their impressive conversion rates. This has not been as big an issue as it may appear to be thus far, but Arsenal have arguably had an easier start than their title rivals.
Since dismantling Chelsea a month ago, Arsenal have looked far from convincing. A lucky win at Burnley was followed by a victory over Swansea that was far closer than it ever should have been. And last time out, Middlesbrough ultimately felt disappointed with a draw at the Emirates - despite being dominated in possession, the visitors carved out the better, and in fact more, chances than Arsenal. It seems contradictory to criticise Arsenal in this case considering that these are the type of game that they’d have typically thrown away in previous seasons, but it shows that they can be got at by the ‘lesser’ sides.
With Aaron Ramsey still recovering from injury and Santi Cazorla and Granit Xhaka absent, Arsenal lack a ball player in the middle of the park. Cazorla has excelled since being moved to a deeper position, and while Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny offer energy and bite, they lack the creativity offered by their teammates. If Sunderland can frustrate Arsenal in possession, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are likely to drop deep to look for the ball. Getting Arsenal’s best players as far from the goal as possible is always a good thing.
Arsenal are likely to line-up with their traditional 4-2-3-1 setup. Unlike recent seasons, Wenger has preferred to go with Sanchez to play in the forward position. The Chilean, unlike Olivier Giroud, offers a dynamic threat - he is able to come short and spin in behind or use his blistering pace to stretch the opposing defence. Sanchez’s movement is key to opening space for the likes of Ozil, Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to exploit. Ozil is likely to be given a free role in behind Sanchez. The German will sweep from left to right looking for space, which admittedly is not too difficult when playing against Sunderland.
With Sunderland struggling down the flanks, Arsenal’s wingers will repeatedly look to come inside, opening up space for Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin. The pair have combined for an attempted 44 crosses in nine games and will expect to add to their total on Saturday. Patrick van Aanholt’s pace will see him match Walcott in terms of running. With that in mind, Wenger may opt to shift Walcott to the left side - where he can run at the slower Javi Manquillo - and bring Oxlade-Chamberlain in on the right. ‘The Ox’ is arguably the trickier of the two and is likely to give van Aanholt more to think about, as opposed to a simple foot race. And despite playing exclusively on the right all season, and cutting inside, all five of Walcott’s league goals have come via his right foot. Shifting over to the left will provide him with more opportunities and favourable angles to use his dominant foot.
Olivier Giroud scored at both ends as Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners in December. Joel Campbell had given Arsenal the lead at the Emirates, but Giroud turned a free kick into his own net just before half time to send the teams in level. The Frenchman made up for his error in the second half before Aaron Ramsey wrapped up a less than convincing win in stoppage time.
Sunderland returned to London just a month later in the FA Cup, falling to the same scoreline and goalscorers. Jeremain Lens put Sunderland in front before Campbell equalised. Two goals in three minutes from Ramsey and Giroud saw Sam Allardyce eliminated at the first hurdle.
In the return league fixture at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland battled for a well-earned point to see them climb out of the relegation zone with just three games remaining.