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What's Ailing Arsenal? Learning From Others, Part I: Sunderland (Premier League)

Kieran Richardson (L) of Sunderland in action with Theo Walcott of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Arsenal at the Stadium of Light.
Kieran Richardson (L) of Sunderland in action with Theo Walcott of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Arsenal at the Stadium of Light.

Arsenal has had a rough season, but they've performed particularly poorly over the last three games. The point of this series isn't to pick on Arsenal, have a laugh at their expense or talk about how much they suck. There are reasons -- some their fault and some not -- that Arsenal are struggling right now. Some of their struggling has been done to them; Sunderland and AC Milan are good teams with good managers.

It's interesting to look at Arsenal's last three games and what their opponents have done to them for two reasons. One, because both Max Allegri and Martin O'Neill have been so effective at making things hard for the Gunners. Two, because the two teams play very different styles that give Arsenal trouble for different reasons. Additionally, neither team plays in a way similar to how Tottenham currently plays.

Let's start with the Premier League match against Sunderland on February 11, a game which Arsenal actually won on an Aaron Ramsey goal from outside the box and a stoppage time header by Thierry Henry. They weren't at their best by any stretch of the imagination, but a couple of their players had the quality to bail them out.

Let's start with a formation diagram with all kinds of arrows. Who likes arrows? I like arrows! I'll explain the arrows, I promise.

football formations

Everything down the same flank

Kieran Richardson and Bacary Sagna are both excellent getting forward. Thomas Vermaelen and Phil Bardsley are not. Additionally, the wingers on that side generally stayed wide, which was not the case on the other side. About half of this game was played down that one flank, with the other half played on the other two-thirds of the pitch.

AOC cuts in, John O'Shea accounts for it

Michael Turner and John O'Shea made up an interesting partnership where O'Shea would step up to try and kill attacks occasionally, and would pick up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he cut in. Turner basically held his position and didn't take a forward step. Fraizer Campbell also came inside a bit from the right, but it didn't really need to be "accounted for" since Sunderland didn't have the ball much. Campbell attempted one shot and didn't hit the target.

Sebastian Larsson is an attacking central midfielder...sort of. Stephane Sessegnon is a striker...sort of.

Seb Larsson has had a very good season, front to back, even though he's played in different positions and different systems just like everyone else. Primarily an attacking left back or a balanced winger for most of his career, he's playing centrally now, but he comes back to defend a lot and he drifts out to the left a bit too. Stephane Sessegnon just drifts everywhere. It's like a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-6-0/example of why over-reliance on formation notation is dumb. They didn't see a lot of the ball because Alex Song and Mikel Arteta, for all of their shortcomings, were brilliant at holding their positions and keeping the ball in this game.

The goals

Basically, all of the goals in this game were stupid and there's nothing to be learned about either team from any of them. Sunderland scored the opening goal, which was gifted to them by Per Mertesacker blowing out his knee (correction: ankle) as he lost the ball. This gave James McClean a clean one-on-one, and Wojciech Szczesny's positioning on the goal was poor.

Simon Mignolet's positioning on both of Arsenal's goals wasn't much better. He should have done better on Aaron Ramsey's strike from distance and Thierry Henry's header.

The first 60-70 minutes

Even though Arsenal had plenty of possession and Mikel Arteta did his job in the middle, Arsenal weren't exactly threatening for most of the first hour of the game. Turner kept the shackles on van Persie and a touchline-hugging Theo Walcott is a tame Theo Walcott. AOC wasn't as brilliant as he had been. Rosicky didn't have the quality of a Fabregas, a Wilshere, or even Ramsey when he's at his best. Sunderland's rigid setup requires something great or lucky to break down. Arsenal's starting front four was neither.


Sunderland's rigid setup that countered down the wings and tried to keep the ball away from Arteta when they had the ball was an intelligent one that frustrated Arsenal. They didn't do enough to win the ball back in the middle and prevent Arteta from influencing the game, however, while the front two players were poor. Sunderland would make adjustments to their team for the FA Cup game, and the one change they made was one that made a lot of difference.

Tomorrow: Arsenal vs. AC Milan. Wednesday: Arsenal vs. Sunderland (FA Cup). Thursday: How these games apply to Tottenham and the North London Derby.