Arsenal were coming into this match after their 4-0 battering at the hands of AC Milan, where, bar a magical moment of link up play between Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, they didn’t look like they would create anything and could not handle the movement of Robinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kevin Prince-Boateng. Sunderland had narrowly lost to the same Arsenal side the Saturday before and were looking to make amends with a win after showing some good form under Martin O’Neill.
Arsene Wenger made 5 changes to the team that lost in Milan: Gervinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Johan Djourou and Francis Coquelin coming in for Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny and Keiran Gibbs with Lukasz Fabianski replacing Wojciech Szczesny between the posts.
Sunderland started the match in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Lee Cattermole, Jack Colback and Craig Gardner in the middle with Stephane Sessegnon up top. Sessegnon, who is naturally an attacking midfielder, was dropping deep into a false nine role but the midfield behind him were hard workers yet not intelligent enough to link up with him and were pretty static with their movement. Nicklas Bendtner or Connor Wickham would have suited Sunderland more as Sebastian Larsson, who, while not pacy, is good at crossing from deep and the midfield could pick up the knockdowns from the strikers.
O’Neill’s shape matched Arsenal’s normal 4-2-3-1 and it was effective early on as Sunderland pressed high up the pitch denying Arsenal time and space on the ball. A goal nearly resulted of the pressing when Sunderland knicked the ball outside the box only to shoot wide. A few minutes later, they caught Arsenal on the ball and from the resulting corner Kieran Richardson volleyed home. Mikel Arteta started the game trying to be the link between Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey but could not receive the ball in space, so started to drop very deep to receive the ball and get Arsenal playing. However this exacerbated Arsenal’s problem because Ramsey still stayed very high up the pitch, meaning Arsenal were a broken team, making Arsenal were even easier to stop.
Van Persie was starting to get frustrated and dropped deep to Ramsey’s level meaning Arsenal had no threat in behind and leaving Arsenal boxed in. The Gunners’ best chance of penetrating looked to be on the flanks with Gervinho dangerous moving inside and linking up with Van Persie. Thomas Vermaelen moving to left back after Coquelin’s injury meant Arsenal did not have a threat on the overlap on that flank because he was reluctant to get forward – this meant Larsson just came inside without the ball to outnumber Arsenal in the middle.
There were no immediate changes after half time: Arsenal were still dominating possession but going nowhere, while when Sunderland won it they tried to play it straight to Sessegnon. The balls in the air he struggled with, however when it was played into the channels his technical ability showed and he was able to keep the ball and lay it off. Soon after the second half started, Wenger brought on Rosicky and Walcott for Ramsey and Sebastien Squillaci and switched to a 4-4-2 with Walcott alongside Van Persie. The change to 4-4-2 would normally mean that the team would move the ball forward a bit quicker from flank to flank and try and get into space to score, however, just as they were for the whole game, Wenger’s team were slow and ponderous and so the Black cats defence could easily adjust. With no space in behind Sunderland’s defence it was an odd move to bring on Walcott instead of someone like Marouane Chamakh, who although has played poorly this season would provide a better aerial threat.
In the closing stages of the game Arsenal were very ragged at the back and left space, as you would expect from a team chasing the game. Sessegnon found himself in a lot of space on the counter and had the vision to find James McClean at the back post when most would have gone for the shot to put Sunderland two up for what is becoming a classic Arsenal loss.