The Story So Far
As has become custom for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger's side find themselves battling for a Champions League spot after a mid-season collapse.
However, there was hope initially.
The Gunners' season started relatively well. Just 1 defeat in their opening 15 games - on the opening day of the season at the hands of Liverpool - saw them sitting nicely in 2nd, just 3 points behind leaders Chelsea. Just 2 league defeats - back-to-back against Everton and Manchester City - followed, before a catastrophic run beginning at the end of January saw Arsenal's season fall apart. The Gunners won just 3 matches in a 10-game stretch, with 2 of those coming in the FA Cup against lowly Sutton United and Lincoln. To make matters even worse, a 10-2 aggregate Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich during this period made Arsenal the laughing stock of Europe.
But out of nowhere, Arsenal have risen again. They've suffered just 2 defeats in their last 8 league games - albeit to Tottenham and a humiliating collapse at Crystal Palace - to give themselves a fighting chance of finishing 4th. They need some help from either West Brom or Watford (Manchester City's remaining opponents) to finish well this season, but their race is certainly not over yet.
They've also triumphed at Wembley to reach yet another FA Cup final, fighting back to defeat City in extra time. Only Chelsea stand in the way of a potential record-breaking FA Cup victory.
Despite what many would consider to be a positive season, enough is enough for many Arsenal fans, and they want Wenger out. Some do want him to stay, yet the disgruntled voices seem to outweigh those with faith in Wenger’s ability to bring continued success to the North London club. There have been protests, banners and planes flying messages from both sides of the argument while Wenger himself has remained tight lipped. The potential of a top 4 finish and another FA Cup triumph will either provide the perfect backdrop for the Frenchman to bow out, or the motivation to give it one last shot.
For the first time in what seems like forever, Arsene Wenger has sprung a tactical surprise and now has Arsenal lining up in a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 à la Chelsea and Tottenham.
Utilising 3 central defenders has given Arsenal more defensive solidity while reducing the areas in which they have to operate. It's no surprise that the likes of Gabriel and Nacho Monreal look much improved playing in this system. The wing backs are able to maraud up and down the pitch thanks to this defensive block, which is aided by 2 central midfielders.
This allows Arsenal's advanced players to tuck inside. Mesut Ozil, in particular, has benefited from this switch. With the presence of a solid defensive shape behind him, and either Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Hector Bellerin to do his running up and down the wing, Ozil can now concentrate his focus on creativity as opposed to having to defend for the team. Furthermore, the options now available all over the pitch in this new-look system allow his languid style to thrive.
While Arsenal's setup has changed, their style of play certainly hasn't. They average 56.6% possession and 83.7% pass accuracy which rank among the best in the league. They make 518 short passes and attempt a league-low 53 long balls per game on average, so it's very much a case of classic Arsenal. They'll look to create angles through intricate passing and movement, using Olivier Giroud as a base from which to play off, and will likely pass Sunderland to death.
As ever, scoring goals has not been a problem for Arsenal. They've scored 72, with only Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool finding the net more. They shoot with a high accuracy of 49% while scoring 1 in every 7 shots, and boast an extremely impressive 1 per 2.5 shots on target.
Perhaps rather more surprisingly, Arsenal are very strong in the air, winning 51% of their aerial duels. No other team has scored more headed goals than the Gunners, who top the table with 17. This is made even more impressive considering that they attempt a lowly 18 crosses per game on average.
This aerial strength has also translated to strong performances in defence. Only Spurs, Manchester City and Manchester United have conceded less headed goals than Arsenal have (6), while their 6 goals conceded from set pieces is the league's joint best record.
Arsenal are also particularly strong at winning the ball back. 17.9 tackles and 14.4 interceptions are very high numbers for team who typically dominate possession.
Arsenal often chase the 'perfect' goal, choosing to seemingly attempt to walk the ball into the net rather than simply taking a shot at goal. This is partially reflected in the stats. 14.3 shots per game and 5 on target are only the league's 7th highest averages. They still score plenty of goals so it's not too much of an issue, but they can over-complicate matters at times.
They allow 11.2 shots per game at the other end of the pitch, which is over three more than Manchester City. This is the most allowed by any of the top 6 and almost 2 more than their closest rival, Manchester United (9.4) in this mini-stat table. This may help to explain why they've conceded more goals than any of the league’s top 7.
Outside of any statistics, Arsenal are always prone to a meltdown despite their recent improvements. They seem unable to shake a lingering mental weakness and fragility that has crippled them for a number of seasons now. With the pressure of a top 4 battle on their shoulders, might they collapse once more on Tuesday?
Key Player - Olivier Giroud
*If Alexis Sanchez is unavailable to play*
The Frenchman has been starved of game time this season, averaging just under 40 minutes per game in his 28 league appearances (10 starts).
Despite this, his goalscoring record makes for impressive reading. The former Montpellier talisman has scored 12 league goals at a rate of one every 93 minutes. His goals per 90 minutes ratio of 0.96 is the joint best in the league (tied with Chelsea hero Michy Batshuayi) and beats the likes of Gonzalo Higuain (0.8) and Luis Suarez (0.901).
Giroud has burst into form after a run of six games without a goal, scoring against Southampton midweek and then twice against Stoke on Saturday. He has scored 4 times in his last 4 games against Sunderland, including twice from the bench with his first 2 touches in the reverse fixture.
With 6 headed league goals, Giroud represents a major threat in the air, especially considering Sunderland's horrendous ability to defend from crosses and set pieces.
- Arsenal are undefeated against Sunderland in their last 11 home games in all competitions;
- Arsenal have never lost a home Premier League game against Sunderland (W10, D5);
- Sunderland have won just one of their last 26 Premier League games against Arsenal - a 1-0 home win in November 2009;
- Arsenal have lost just one of their last 16 Premier League matches at the Emirates Stadium (W12, D3, L1);
- Olivier Giroud has scored 4 goals in his last 4 games against Sunderland;
- David Moyes has lost 15 times to Arsene Wenger in the Premier League - his most defeats against a single manager in the competition