What’s that saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same?”
So was the story for Arsenal fans on Saturday, as Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland squad stifled, squashed, and blocked their way to a point at the Emirates.
Everyone has been wondering how Arsenal would cope without Robin van Persie. They started in Arsene Wenger’s favored 4-2-3-1. Starting in van Persie’s familiar spot was new signing Lukas Podolski. Another newcomer, Santi Cazorla, took up in the midfield as the primary playmaker for the team.
Sunderland went with a very conservative lineup, in a 4-1-4-1 shape. They started with Stephane Sessegnon, usually a support striker, as the lone forward player, a clear indication of their intention to thwart the Gunners. Another forward, Fraizer Campbell, played out wide right opposite James McClean, one of the breakout players for the Black Cats in 2011-12. Lee Cattermole sat ahead of the defense, meant to doggedly mark Cazorla as he tried to pick up the ball behind the midfield 4 and start plays.
The match was a very clean, no disciplinary measures needed. Sunderland played a high-pressure defensive game against Arsenal, not surprising considering O’Neill’s propensity to find points against more talented teams.
With how much the Black Cats sat deep, Arsenal’s ability to enter the final third was relatively simple. It was after that entry that everything came to a halt. Runs from Cazorla, Gervinho, or Walcott were neatly knocked away by a hard-working defense. The Gunners’ chances came, but most were with a defender in the way.
The best chance for Arsenal came as time was winding down, and former Montpelier man Olivier Giroud replaced Podolski. Cazorla played the ball past Cattermole and into clear space near the penalty spot. Giroud came onto it, struck it hard with his right boot, but the ball was guided just wide to the right.
Sunderland, starting the season against a top 4 side, were looking for a draw, and that’s what they got. The Gunners continue to lack certain elements of their team. For one thing, they have guys like Andrei Arshavin who seem uninterested in playing hard for the club. The Russian had several giveaways as he came on replacing Theo Walcott. The obvious loss of van Persie is huge when it comes to goal scoring, but it may take time for these new pickups to come together. Cazorla was likely Arsenal’s Man of the Match for this fixture, finding his teammates in open positions very often.
This is the same kind of result for the Gunners, though, that we’ve often seen against pragmatic teams looking to draw. Instead of extra workrate or desperation, the frustration leads to insecurity and lack of effort oftentimes for Arsenal. The team needs leadership and someone to take control of these types of matches. Maybe Cazorla can be that type of player, but at these early stages it’s tough to tell.
For Sunderland, it’s a great point to start the season. They now head home to the Stadium of Light to face newly promoted Reading. A great effort from O’Neill’s team was rewarded on this day, and now they need to look to bring in a scoring threat up front. If they can find that type of player, perhaps they can get a top-half finish.