Arsenal failed to score for the third successive home game, drawing 0-0 to Sunderland. The result was was enough to guarantee the away side Premier League safety but one that was greeted with yet more jeers from the more fickle Arsenal fans.
Despite the negativity surrounding the result, Arsenal too all but guaranteed their own final position. Dropping points means Man City are uncatchable in second, but after snatching a point at Old Trafford on Sunday 3rd, and automatic Champions League qualification with it, is likely to be theirs bar any final day drama and a shed load of goals.
0-0 was not the most glamorous of scorelines to secure this fate however, and when asked about the game, Arsene Wenger himself knew it wasn’t the best of games. Yet, he was again unwilling to criticise his players, and rightly so, highlighting Sunderland’s defensive approach as well as a lack of freshness amongst his own players instead. Both of which were evident.
Jermain Defoe was brought in to score goals that would help keep Sunderland up, but Wednesday’s game saw a role far removed from his usual responsibility. After his stunner against Newcastle and many other important contributions, in a match where a point was all they needed to secure their survival, Defoe’s focus was very much on stopping goals rather than scoring them.
John O’Shea referred to him as ‘their new left back’ in his post match interview with Sky, and it was this change in position for the striker that embodied Sunderland’s resilience and resoluteness in defence, proving unbeatable despite Arsenal firing 28 shots their way. The home side, in contrast fielded a very attacking team.
Francis Coquelin, an ever present since being recalled from loan, was dropped to the bench. Aaron Ramsey moved in to his preferred central role with Jack Wilshere, making his first start since the home defeat to Manchester United, being used on the right. Kieran Gibbs, arguably more offensively-minded than first choice Monreal, was also given a start at left back.
However, despite the intent signalled by the team selection, not even this XI, overflowing with attacking talent, could break down the Sunderland team. The away team’s defence, goalkeeper included, put on a heroic display and ensured Arsenal would finish yet another home game without getting on the scoresheet.
Social media overflowed with criticism for Wenger’s side. Many highlighted the irony of calling Chelsea’s approach to the game boring, only to struggle to find the net themselves in their own games since. Bearing in mind it was an own goal that drew them level against United, it has been quite a while since an Arsenal player has got on the scoresheet.
Nevertheless, despite the usual criticism doing the rounds, it was not through fault of trying Arsenal weren’t able to break Sunderland down. A combination of outstanding defending and a one dimensional attack was the real reason for their inability to hit the back of the net.
Arsenal fans are quick to criticise their own manager, players and style of play, before commending that of the opposition team. Rather than realising the last three visitors to the Emirates came with a game plan and executed it to perfection, Arsenal fans have been quick to slate the team which only a month earlier was putting a wide smile on the face of even the most cynical fans.
Cries of ‘they never shoot’ were common after the match, when in reality, Arsenal shot 28 times. Not registering a goal after such a bombardment almost defies logic. Yet, some fans were still seemingly incapable of letting a match go by without spewing out some sort of negative comment.
This is not to say Arsenal’s performance was perfect, far from it. Sunderland were impressive and any team faced with their approach would have found it equally difficult to break down. However, one thing that was clear from the match was Arsenal’s midfield balance, or thereby lack of it. A problem overlooked by those who must spend more time tweeting about the match than actually paying attention to it.
Coquelin was not needed due to the lack of threat Sunderland were likely to pose. They managed to counter attack a few times, but their approach to the game did not warrant the need for a holding midfielder. The problem was that of the Arsenal midfielders that started the game, not one of them was willing to run beyond, preferring to pick the ball up deep and try and create a chance on their own.
Having so many players of the same style and mindset is often not a problem. In fact, Arsenal have proven themselves on many occasions capable of making this technician-centric dynamic work, serving up many a footballing treat in the past. Jack Wilshere’s goal against Norwich comes to mind. But for this game, against a 10 man defence, something else was needed.
Chances were created when Bellerin got forward and got crosses in to the box. However, with only Giroud lurking inside it, these crosses had to be perfectly placed for anything of note to come of it. Ramsey is usually keen to join the Frenchman in the middle, however the freedom he has enjoyed recently on the right seemed shackled by the deeper central role he carried out on Wednesday night.
Not only was there a lack of midfield support, but the full backs themselves were far too cautious in their approach. Bellerin, as mentioned, got forward at times, although still could have done so more often. Gibbs on the other flank was rarely even seen in the opposition half.
Ever since he lost his place to Monreal the England full back looks devoid of all confidence. As a result, something that used to be synonymous with his game is now a rare sight to behold. Gone are the days when you would see him galloping forward and overlapping the left winger. Rarely do you see him firing crosses into the box and providing another avenue for his teammates to explore. The lack of adventure shown by Gibbs is just a small part of the problem Arsenal face when teams set out to defend against them.
Taking all this in to account, and not ignoring the fact Arsenal did not score despite my own reasons why, it should be clear to everyone that Arsene Wenger still has some balancing to do.
With important players returning and others remaining injury free, where in the past Arsene Wenger has been forced to play a certain team, in a certain way, he has perhaps forgotten what is like to to be afforded the luxury of tinkering with his lineup. The one thing you can say about recent performances has been a failure to adapt to different situations and different opposition mentalities.
The likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain for example would have provided the perfect solution to counter such defensive opposition. Arsenal’s delicate approach is usually less effective against these types of teams, something which Chamberlain’s unselfish and direct running helps Arsenal move away from when they need to.
His absence too has highlighted once again how important strength in depth is in the quest to becoming a top team. There is no doubting Arsenal have a squad full of talented individuals, but it seems that many are cut from the same cloth. The lack of different options at their disposal, not options themselves, is one of the major obstacles that hinders any progress towards challenging for the title.
Should they be able to invest wisely this summer, adding players to the squad the likes of which they do not already have, goalless draws at home will become far less frequent.
Having a variety of players would mean Arsene Wenger has the tools necessary to adapt to each situation, rather than falling short in persisting with the same style.
In their final game against West Brom they are likely to find another resolute defence, with Tony Pulis himself having pioneered many methods to put a stop to Arsene Wenger’s preferred style of play. However, should Arsenal fail to score yet again, it will all but confirm the minor changes that need to be made should they want to build on what has been a positive season overall.
‘Minor’, too, being the operative word in that statement. Not the crisis that many Arsenal fans seem to want to exist.