Arsenal vs. Sunderland: Ospina salvages draw; finishing & defending become a concern

Arsenal’s poor scoring form is a concern eight days before the FA Cup final. The Gunners have not found the net in their last three games at the Emirates stadium as they drew 0-0 with Sunderland in the Premier League on Wednesday. That’s not good for the team’s confidence and you can bet that Aston Villa will adopt a game plan similar to the one implemented by Swansea and Sunderland.

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

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The only positive is that Arsenal moved three points clear of Manchester United in the standings, which means that we have virtually secured third place. The Gunners have a goal difference which is seven better than the Red Devils. Only a heavy loss to West Bromwich on Sunday combined with a big victory from Manchester United at the KC stadium would force Arsenal to compete in the Champions League playoffs this summer.

The Gunners kept a clean sheet but Sunderland pulled them out of position quite a few times. The Black Cats kicked off with a 4-2-4 formation which clearly aimed at hitting Arsenal on the fast break. The visitors then switched to a 4-3-3 system at halftime for more defensive solidity. I was surprised to see a weak side like Sunderland play so many through balls behind our defense.

We were vulnerable because we played a high defensive line but also because our midfielders failed to press. You improve your passing game when you boast Cazorla, Ramsey and Ozil in midfield. The downside is that you don’t give much protection to your defense with such a trio.

The new Arteta

Wenger rested Coquelin and played Cazorla as a holding midfielder. That must have been a strange season for Cazorla, who started his Arsenal career on the left wing. The manager noticed how Cazorla’s offensive contribution declined and therefore turned him into an all-rounder playing next to Coquelin. Cazorla shone in that position against Manchester City. On Wednesday, Wenger moved Cazorla further back by playing him as a No. 6.

Arteta is the first name that comes to mind when you think about a playmaker becoming a holding midfielder in the later stages of his career. The main difference is that Cazorla has better dribbling skills while Arteta is stronger in tackles. Obviously, this is a new position for Cazorla but I don’t think it’s a viable option at kickoff simply because Coquelin is the better ballwinner in the squad. Maybe in the last 20 minutes when our opponents start tiring.

There were signs in the first half that the Black Cats could hurt us with their vertical game. Graham outpaced the Arsenal defense in the opening minute to chase a long ball but Ospina quickly came off his line to clear the danger. The focus of the Colombia goalkeeper was again tested in the 16th. Defoe ghosted past Bellerin to connect with a pass from Larsson but Ospina was able to beat him to the ball.

Paying the price for not rotating

The Gunners could have lost the match in the second half if Ospina had not made a couple of outstanding saves. Johnson sent Fletcher clean through on goal in the 50th but Ospina denied the Sunderland substitute. We poorly executed the offside trap on that play as Fletcher got ahead of Koscielny. A few seconds later, Van Aanholt took a pass from Defoe by sneaking in behind Bellerin only to fire a low strike that Ospina saved with his leg. Bellerin is still a young player but Wednesday’s game showed that he still needs to work on his tactical awareness.

The Black Cats also took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to launch a counterattack in the 60th. Defoe picked out Fletcher with a long ball along the touchline. Fletcher beat Mertesacker in a foot race to face Ospina one-on-one but the Colombia keeper made himself big to palm out Fletcher’s chip attempt. The Gunners had another scare in the 68th when Fletcher diverted Van Aanholt’s low drive over the bar. Walcott failed to track Van Aanholt on that play while Fletcher ghosted past Koscielny again. The Black Cats did not score but the number of clear-cut chances they created is a concern ahead of the FA Cup final.

Another worry for the manager is our poor finishing. The Gunners enjoyed 75 percent of ball possession but only 7 of their 28 shots were on target. Wenger complained about tired legs in his post-match news conference but that’s what happens when you name the same starting lineup in your six previous league games.

Sanchez’s lack of freshness

Not releasing the ball quickly enough in the opening minutes was a clear sign of fatigue. Our passing game got quicker after 20 minutes but we made a poor use of the wings with Wilshere and Sanchez both cutting inside. The Gunners too often tried to play the ball in the congested heart of the Sunderland defense. Gibbs and Bellerin provided a bit of width but couldn’t make up for the lack of penetration in the final third. We badly missed a player like Oxlade-Chamberlain who has the ability to run at defenders in tiny spaces. The situation improved in the second half when Walcott came off the bench and Sanchez hugged a bit more the touchline.

In his 50th match for the club, Sanchez’s lack of freshness showed in the final third. He had three turnovers in the opening minutes because he was too slow to pass the ball. His finishing was surprisingly erratic for a player who carried the team on his shoulders in the first half of the season. Sanchez volleyed wide in the 23rd, missed the target from 10 yards with a free header in the 67th and blasted a long-range effort into the stands in the 77th. He also had space to shoot on the stroke of halftime but lost possession because of a poor touch.

Giroud extended his scoring drought but flashed positive signs with some good hold-up play and a backheel flick that forced Pantilimon into a one-handed save in the 56th. The Frenchman also clipped the bar with a poor cross in the 52nd. I think Giroud gets better service when he’s surrounded by players like Ramsey, Bellerin, Walcott and Wilshere who naturally fit his set of skills.

Wilshere’s final ball

Wenger made two changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Manchester United on Sunday with Gibbs and Wilshere replacing Monreal and Coquelin in the starting lineup. Gibbs looked a bit rusty in the first half with a speculative shot going nowhere in the 27th and two poor cutbacks in the 31st and 33rd. But he found his rhythm in the second half with a header that lacked power to beat Pantilimon in the 58th and a curling shot that deflected off Coates for a corner in the 63rd.

Wednesday’s match was Wilshere’s first start of the year. With more playing time under his belt, maybe Wilshere would have been sharper in his decision-making when Sanchez fed him with a diagonal pass in the 14th. Wilshere controlled the ball with his first touch and then seemed to hesitate between rounding and beating Pantilimon with his second touch. That hesitation allowed the Sunderland goalkeeper to come off his line and knock the ball away. The better option on that play was a first-time pass to an unmarked Ramsey.

Wilshere had another chance when Ramsey set him up in the 20th, but sent his volley over the bar from 17 yards. While finishing was definitely an issue, I thought Wilshere’s presence helped improve the quality of our final ball. Giroud connected with a chipped pass from Wilshere in the 32nd for a difficult volley that sailed wide. Ozil was in a better position in the 30th when Wilshere played a ball over the top. But the Germany playmaker missed the target with his weaker foot from nine yards.

That miss seemed to affect Ozil’s confidence in the 59th. Wilshere played him in again but Ozil refused to shoot with his right foot from 15 yards. Instead, Ozil made a pass across goal to Sanchez, who cut inside and had an effort blocked.

Ramsey back in a central position

Technically, Ozil is our most gifted player. So it’s hard to understand how he couldn’t beat the first man with a corner in the 63rd. And it’s not the first time that he has poorly taken a corner. I remember when Ronaldinho was at the top of his game, he could almost put the ball on a teammate’s head with every corner kick. So far, Ozil has notched 4 goals and 5 assists in 21 league games this season. That’s not enough for a world-class player like Ozil. He needs to be more decisive in the final third. The funny thing is that Ozil and Ramsey have the same ratio of goals or assists per league game (0.4285) even though Ozil plays in a more advanced position and does not contribute as much as Ramsey defensively.

Ramsey finally moved into a more central position after a string of games on the right flank. He nearly put himself in trouble by receiving a yellow card for a rough challenge on Larsson in the 18th. However, the Wales midfielder showed enough maturity to refrain from earning a second booking. Ramsey could have made the difference as a finisher. He had a long-range strike stopped by Pantilimon in the 85th and was also body-checked while playing a one-two with Giroud in the 28th but the referee did not spot the foul.

As a passer, Ramsey slipped a perfect through ball to Walcott in the 72nd. The England winger beat Pantilimon with a low shot but Coates cleared the ball off the line. Two minutes later, a cross from Ramsey caused panic in the Sunderland defense. Coates fluffed his clearance and the ball bounced off Jones to hit the bar.

A rehearsal and an audition

I thought Walcott was much sharper in the final third than a couple of months ago. In the closing minutes, it looked like the winner would come from him. Giroud set up Walcott for an angled strike that Pantilimon spilled in the 84th. But no Gunner was alert enough to pounce on the rebound. Walcott then used his pace in the 87th to skip past Van Aanholt for a powerful effort that Pantilimon parried.

The final league game against West Bromwich on Sunday should be a rehearsal and an audition for the FA Cup final. We need to fix our finishing and our defending. Rosicky, Flamini, Gibbs and Paulista could get a chance to make an impression on the manager. It will be interesting to see who gets picked by Wenger between those struggling for form (Giroud, Sanchez, Ozil, Cazorla) and those peaking as the season is coming to an end (Walcott, Wilshere, Ramsey).