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Talking Tactics With Rory Fallow - SAFC v Arsenal

A hard fought 0-0 draw at home to Arsenal saw Sunderland escape the bottom three. Rory Fallow analyses the game.

Line Up

Yet another unchanged side named by Sam Allardyce, as Sunderland looked to keep up their momentum after a 3-0 win away to Norwich. This would be the third time that Sunderland have faced Arsenal this season and it would be the third goalkeeper they'd used, as Vito Mannone followed on from Costel Pantilimon and Jordan Pickford in trying to keep the Gunners out. Ahead of Mannone was the central partnership of Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone and they'd be flanked by DeAndre Yedlin on the right and Patrick van Aanholt on the left.

The only real question mark going into this game was whether Duncan Watmore would start ahead of Wahbi Khazri, after his impressive contribution coming on as a substitute last week. Sam Allardyce, quite rightly, decided not to drop Khazri after just one poor showing and kept Watmore as an option from bench. Starting on the left, Khazri would be looking to feed Jermain Defoe in the middle and assisting that cause was Fabio Borini, on the right.

Last weeks man of the match Lee Cattermole started alongside Yann M'Vila in the two more advanced central midfield positions, with Jan Kirchhoff in the deep lying role which completed a 4-1-4-1 formation.


Lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Arsene Wenger made no changes to the side that defeated West Bromwich Albion on Thursday night. In the number 9 position was Olivier Giroud, who would be looking to end a goal drought of 14 games and he'd be aided by Mesut Ozil in the number 10 role. The scorer of both of Arsenal's goals on Thursday night, Alexis Sanchez started wide on the right. Nineteen year old Alex Iwobi started on the left and continued to keep Danny Welbeck out of the side.

Looking to keep the door locked for Arsenal was their customary centre half pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny and in goal, the veteran Petr Cech. Fresh from being named in the PFA team of the year was Hector Bellerin at right back, who'd provide as much going forward as he would going back. Spanish international Nacho Monreal started at left back.

Completing the Arsenal line up was a central midfield duo of Aaron Ramsey and Mohamed Elneny, whilst there was a return to the bench for Jack Wilshere.


Sunderland would have to be content in playing the majority of the game without the ball, as Arsenal would look to take control and play on the front foot. With the three attacking midfielders of Alexis Sanchez, Alex Iwobi and Mesut Ozil, Sunderland's three central midfielders could expect a tough and busy afternoon. Sam Allardyce would have faith in Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone to keep out Olivier Giroud, but dealing with Ozil, Iwobi and Sanchez would complicate matters. The wider attackers would look to cut inside and try and work the ball through Sunderland's defence, so Jan Kirchhoff would be the main enforcer in limiting Arsenal's opportunities.

The attack minded full backs of Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal would pick and choose their opportunities to take up the space vacated out wide. Due to the ongoing threat of Arsenal's full backs, Fabio Borini and Wahbi Khazri would need to work hard in defence to aid DeAndre Yedlin and Patrick van Aanholt. Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila would be able to alternate in helping the defence in the wider area's but their main focus would still be on Arsenal's threat through the middle.

From an attacking point of view, Sunderland would look to operate in a similar way to how they did at Carrow Road and try and hurt Arsenal through good pressing of the ball and quick counter attacks. Leading that particular charge would be the central midfielders, to not allow Aaron Ramsey and Mohammed Elneny much time on the ball, but Khazri, Borini and Defoe would be expected to help out as well, to prevent Arsenal's patient build up play. There'd be potential joy for Sunderland with the pace of their forward line up against the slower Mertesacker and Koscielny but long, hung up balls to Defoe would be useless given their height.


As expected, Arsenal began the game with the majority of possession and had the most shots on goal in the opening twenty minutes. Alex Iwobi and Alexis Sanchez were causing problems when in possession, with Iwobi completing three dribbles and Sanchez completing one. Fortunately for Sunderland though, they were answering the questions Arsenal asked of them in the early stages by making a combined four tackles to Arsenal's one. Both sides had early chances, Arsenal's coming from Olivier Giroud's shot from a tight angle, which was blocked by Patrick van Aanholt and parried out by Vito Mannone for a corner, which resulted in Per Mertesacker heading straight at the 'keeper. Some excellent pressing from Wahbi Khazri, on Aaron Ramsey, allowed him to pick up the ball and run at the Arsenal defence, only for his shot to be blocked by Laurent Koscielny. That was Sunderland's best chance yet and it came from them putting pressure on the Arsenal midfield, something they'd need to keep up. From the corner, the ball was only headed half clear and Lee Cattermole was able to send in a fizzing drive from 25 yards but it whistled just wide of Petr Cech's lefthand post.

Despite weathering the opening twenty minutes, Sunderland started to concede further possession to Arsenal in the fifteen that followed. Between the 20th and 35th minute, Sunderland only saw 16% of the possession in a period that saw the visitors have six shots on goal. Both sides went close with a free kick each, Patrick van Aanholt hitting the outside of the post for The Black Cats and Alexis Sanchez producing a good low save from Vito Mannone, who tipped the ball wide and an attempted cross was blocked by DeAndre Yedlin to give Arsenal their third corner of the game. The resulting corner presented Arsenal with the chance to reward their dominance, as a couple of headers saw the ball fall to Alex Iwobi in the six yard box but his stabbed effort was blocked on the line by Patrick van Aanholt.

Even though they saw less of the ball in this time, Sunderland kept up their strong tackling during this phase of the game making four to Arsenal's zero. With Wahbi Khazri and Fabio Borini becoming stronger defensively and helping out their full backs it also prevented Arsenal's forwards from making runs with the ball at their feet, as they only completed one dribble in this time.

With the first half drawing to a close, Sunderland regained some control in the final ten minutes. Some patient build up play from the home side saw them have a big appeal for a penalty waved away by referee Mike Dean, as Jermain Defoe's shot from twelve yards out struck the arm of Per Mertesacker. Arsenal had a handball appeal of their own waved away just two minutes later when Iwobi's shot bounced of DeAndre Yedlin's thigh and onto his arm. One would think that Mertesacker and Yedlin's close proximity to the ball was Dean's reasoning for not pointing to the spot but both sides could feel aggrieved that a penalty hadn't been awarded.

The penalty appeals where the last action of a half that saw Arsenal dominate possession but Sunderland's good positioning and nine tackles prevented the Gunners from doing much with it. The fact that Sunderland had also dispossessed Arsenal six times showed that they were also pressing well but their pass success rate of 57% would need to improve if they were to get a result out of the match.

In the opening fifteen minutes of the second half, Sunderland enjoyed their best spell in the game so far. They had their highest amount of possession with 41%, more corners and as many shots as Arsenal. An exquisite direct ball from Jan Kirchhoff fell kindly to Jermain Defoe just inside the box, who unleashed a well struck volley that was parried away by Petr Cech. Coming onto the rebound was Yann M'Vila and his awkward, deflected shot had to be turned round the post by the Arsenal goalkeeper. Two minutes later, Cech would have to push another effort around his right post as Wahbi Khazri got the better of Hector Bellerin before driving the ball towards the bottom corner. It was a frantic period of the game and Arsenal carved out a chance themselves when Olivier Giroud forced Mannone wide of his goal and crossed into the middle only for Iwobi to balloon his shot miles off target.

With the Sunderland's confidence growing, so did their successful passes. Between 60 and 75 minutes they were as close as they had been to Arsenal in the passing stakes, with 62% to 75% in the away sides favour. That confidence in their passing had already been displayed by Kirchhoff's clever long ball to Defoe and Lee Cattermole made a similarly teasing ball - which saw Defoe attempt an audacious lob from almost the exact same position he had volleyed the ball from, only fourteen minutes earlier. It may have drifted wide of the far post, to Arsenal's relief, but Sunderland were now playing some really nice passes for Defoe to run onto and exploit the lack of pace in Arsenal's centre half's. Defoe got in behind once again just four minutes later, this time in a wide position, but his attempted square ball to Fabio Borini was comfortably cleared by Koscielny for a Sunderland corner. The corner saw a huge chance go begging for The Black Cats as Khazri's ball in dropped kindly in the six yard box but it eluded Lamine Kone, who would have had a tap in.

With Olivier Giroud being comfortably kept quiet by Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone, Arsene Wenger substituted the Frenchman for Danny Welbeck. Despite winning a few headers, Giroud had been frustrated by Kaboul and Kone who constantly blocked off his runs and prevented him from having any time on the ball when in possession. The fact that Giroud's only shot on goal was an effort from a tight angle, which was easily blocked by van Aanholt, is very much to the centre halfs credit. At this time, Theo Walcott replaced Alex Iwobi and Sunderland made their first changes a couple of minutes later, Duncan Watmore replacing Fabio Borini and, not long after, Sebastian Larsson coming on for the tiring Jan Kirchhoff.

Sunderland had hearts in their mouths when Vito Mannone rushed out of his area to head the ball clear, only to misjudge it and totally miss time his header. Thankfully for Sunderland, and Mannone, their blushes were spared by Younes Kaboul's calm, commanding and assured defending. At the other end, Watmore instantly introduced himself into the action by twisting and turning around the Arsenal defence and hit a shot-come-cross towards the far post, only for the offside flag to go up when Jermain Defoe tried to get on the end of it.

Sunderland didn't look to be settling for a draw, sensing Arsenal were vulnerable, the likes of Kaboul were leading the charge and geeing up the Stadium of Light crowd. Their second half performance had been very strong as they saw 13% more of the ball than they did in the first, completed 13% more of their passes and sustained their impressive tackling and pressing of the opposition. It may not have been enough for The Black Cats to make it two wins in a row but it was certainly a valuable point and another well earned clean sheet as the game finished 0-0.


A fine team performance from Sunderland in a game that, on another day and with a little bit more luck, they may have came away from with all three points. It's being said every week now but i don't feel like it can be stressed enough just how great a partnership Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone look together. In the relegation battle, pundits are quick to make the point of how vital Jermain Defoe is for Sunderland and while that may be true, more should be made about how important Kaboul and Kone are. That's three clean sheets out of four for Sunderland now and keeping out the likes of Ozil and Sanchez just prove how solid that defence is now and how Sunderland no longer need to score a couple of goals to get a result out of a game. Every player does their bit, of course, but a lot of the credit is due to a centre half partnership that have superb positional sense, are strong and also have the ability to play the ball out from defence when required.

In front of the defence, the midfield trio of Jan Kirchhoff, Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila worked tirelessly as they tried to influence the game from an attacking sense, as well as keep Arsenal away from Vito Mannone's goal. There's been a lot of standout performances from Sunderland's midfield since the turn of the year (Cattermole and Kirchhoff at Norwich last week for example) but this was the best they played as a unit. M'Vila has seen a dip in form in recent weeks but his second half performance was much more like the player we saw in the first half of the campaign. He pressed higher up the pitch, made tackles in crucial area's which were dangerous for Arsenal and he got some shots on goal. With Kirchhoff and Cattermole keeping up their standards from last weeks game, M'Vila getting back on song and was a major help to the cause. If the three of them perform like that against Stoke next week it could be a very good afternoon for Sunderland.

After being taken off at half time last week, Wahbi Khazri gave a brilliant reaction as he looked the most threatening of Sunderland's attackers. A very impressive pass success percentage of 80% was better than both Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, whilst his tireless harrying of the Arsenal defenders and hard work in tracking back showed his commitment. If he puts in performances like that from now until the end of the season, along with the defence looking even tighter, Sunderland need not worry. It won't be that simple, of course but the draw against Arsenal has lifted The Black Cats out of the bottom three and it's all in their own hands. They just need to keep this kind of display up.

All stats are according to WhoScored.

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