After the 0-0 draw with Chelsea, the 1-0 defeat to Swansea and the mediocre 1-1 draw with Manchester United, it felt like Arsenal had lost some momentum towards the end of the season following the excellent winning run. What was needed was a morale boosting goal-fest that can sometimes come if there is pressure off near the end of the campaign. Unfortunately, Sunderland very much had the pressure on, and secured the draw they needed to avoid relegation with a 0-0 draw.
It was the third home game in row without a goal for the Gunners, although I don’t think they’ve come up against three more defensively minded teams during the season than Chelsea, Swansea and Sunderland. All three, especially in the second halves, showed little interest in trying to score, with only Swansea managing it with their only shot on goal. All three teams played with two or three holding midfielders sticking tight in front of their centre-backs, congesting the edge of the penalty area, and giving Arsenal very little space to create any openings.
The biggest concern for Arsenal is that having come up against the same tactics, they still haven’t worked out a way of breaking through. In all the games, one of the most promising spells came against Sunderland as the Gunners worked the ball wide and looked to attack down the right with either Hector Bellerin or Theo Walcott using their pace. But that only came later in the game, as once again, a central midfielder was deployed on the right, with Jack Wilshere notionally playing as the right winger.
With the left-footed Wilshere cutting in from the right, and the right-footed Alexis Sanchez cutting in from the left, the centre of the pitch merely got more congested around the edge of the area. Any real space was out on the flanks, but Arsenal didn’t exploit it enough until later in the game. As previously mentioned on this blog, playing a central midfielder on the right can work if the opposition aren’t going to sit so deep and close off the space around the box, but when a game is crying out for some width to create space in the middle by manouevring the defence around, it’s frustrating to watch as it makes it easier for the defensive team when everyone looks to go through the middle.
Certainly for Chelsea and Sunderland, their positions in the league meant that playing for a 0-0 was to be expected, and a lot of teams won’t be as defensive next season. But it’s something for Arsene Wenger to ponder over the summer, as other teams will look to play that way more often against Arsenal having seen others get results that way. The onus is on Arsenal to try and pick the lock and find a way through.
While the 0-0 draw was frustrating, at least Arsenal didn’t get hit by a sucker-punch on the counter attack. Laurent Koscielny’s pace helped eliminate a lot of danger, while David Ospina made some good saves in the second half to deny Steven Fletcher.
Theo Walcott looked lively when he came on, partly because he offered Arsenal something different, and also because he actually got his head up and looked to use his pace to take on his opponents on a couple of times. Had his finishing been sharper, he may well have won the game for the Gunners, but that should come with more regular playing time. It was also one of those night where every bounce of the ball seemed to go Sunderland’s way, as the visitors had to ride their luck to make it through the game unscathed.
I expect Arsene Wenger will make changes to the team against West Bromwich Albion to keep players fresh for the FA Cup final. Tomas Rosicky also had a lively cameo with Walcott, and both should be given an opportunity on Sunday as the likes of Cazorla and Giroud looked fatigued against the Black Cats. Hopefully that will reinvigorate some of the players, because at the moment, optimism among supporters is slowly dropping off ahead of the trip to Wembley. With third virtually secure because of the goal difference to Manchester United, Arsenal can relax on Sunday, so hopefully the overdue end-of-season goal fest will follow to send everyone to Wembley feeling better about the world. Fans at the Emirates have now waited long enough for another goal to celebrate.
Finally, a word on the officiating on Wednesday evening. I don’t like writing about this as it shouldn’t detract from Sunderland’s committed defending and Arsenal’s inability to break them down. The odd decision here and there wasn’t the reason Arsenal didn’t win the game. But, it’s embarrassing how Anthony Taylor always seems to lose control of a game he referees in some way. On Wednesday night, understandably, Sunderland weren’t keen to get on with the game because of wanting to get a 0-0 draw, but some of the time wasting, particularly from the goalkeeper, was ridiculous. There were needless injury stoppages, corners that took ages and all sorts of time wasting methods thrown in for good measure. To only add three minutes at the end of the match for stoppages was almost an insult to the paying supporters, let alone the players who were trying to win the game. Refereeing is a tough job, but it needs tough characters who will actually be willing to book someone for obvious time wasting, therefore stopping it for the rest of the game having laid down the law, and who will add the right amount of time at the end of the game. Otherwise, you’ll continue to get farcical officiating performances that have been all too common in the Premier League this season.