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What's Ailing Arsenal? Learning From Others, Part III: Sunderland (FA Cup)

Stephane Sessegnon: Good at football.
Stephane Sessegnon: Good at football.

This is Part III of a series of four posts looking at Arsenal last three games leading up to the North London Derby. This post is on their FA Cup match against Sunderland. Part I - Sunderland (EPL), Part II - AC Milan (UEFA CL).

The FA and lots of people who have followed English football for decades are a bit upset that the FA Cup is not what it used to be. Winning the FA Cup used to be on par with winning the league. Now, winning the cup is nowhere near as big as winning the league, and it's about on par with finishing in the top four. Fourth place is a bigger deal, financially, for clubs than the cup. Additionally, the lack of coverage and information make it a little tougher for new fans and old fans who have adopted a new-school way of thinking about the game to get into.

When I did the earlier posts for this series, I had a lot of data to work from. There are dozens of sites across the internet that have gobs of information on the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League. When it comes to FA Cup matches, either I don't know where to find good data or it doesn't exist. With that in mind, this will be shorter than the other posts. But we still have pictures and arrows!

Francis Coquelin started the match for Arsenal, but came off injured after just 10 minutes. Arsenal DNA, that boy. The formation graphic below reflects the substitution, not him starting.

football formations

Martin O'Neill's change

Know how Frazier Campbell's been really good under MON since returning from injury? He got dropped for this match and Sunderland were better for it. With Sebastian Larsson playing wide and Lee Cattermole playing defensive midfield, Jack Colback and Craig Gardner had the freedom to get forward. Larsson didn't get taken out of the game by Mikel Arteta and Alex Song while Sunderland had a better defensive presence in midfield. These changes worked wonders.

Seb Larsson might be at his best as an attacking central midfielder against teams that don't keep the ball well, but it wasn't a great choice in the league game against Arsenal.

The biggest benefit: The counter

Jack Colback and Craig Gardner looked like a couple of old-school English box-to-box midfielders in this one. They were kept in defensive positions for a lot of this game, but when Sunderland got the ball, they broke quickly. It was incredible how quickly the two of them got up into attacking positions on every counter and how quickly they got back when Sunderland lost the ball. Their fitness and work rate was absolutely key in this match.

The goals

The first goal wasn't really Arsenal's fault, and there wasn't much tactics had to do with it. On a corner kick it looked like they had done a decent job of clearing the danger, but the ball fell perfectly for Kieran Richardson. He stepped up and took a first-time rip with his left foot and put it into the back of the net. Simple as that.

This, of course, allowed Sunderland to sit back a bit more and forced Arsenal to get a bit more risky. This left a massive space to counter into, which is how Sunderland would create their second goal. Seb Larsson hit the shot that resulted in the Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain own goal, but the work rate of Stephane Sessegnon and the two central midfield players did just as much to create the opportunity as Larsson.

Obvious conclusions

This game was simply a continuation of what we already knew about Arsenal. If they get scored on early, they struggle. With no Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Jack Wilshere, they simply don't have the quality to break down an organized team that has 10 men behind the ball. They take more and more risks as a 0-0 or 0-1 game goes on, trying to find the goal they need, but they can't always get away with it.

When Song is at his best and Arsenal are playing a defense pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen, they can get away with this. Those three can shut down counter-attacks. But when Song is having one of his off days or someone else is in the center of defense? They get ripped up on the counter.

Tomorrow, I'll put together everything that Sunderland and Milan did successfully over the last three games and talk about what Tottenham can learn from them and implement into their gameplan for the derby.