Arsenal vs. Sunderland: Gunners back to 2013-14 blueprint in 3-1 win

Ramsey has been vocal about his desire to play in central midfield. On Saturday, the manager gave the Wales international the opportunity to start in his favorite position. In a throwback of the 2013-14 season, when Ramsey and Giroud led Arsenal’s ill-fated title bid, the Gunners defeated Sunderland 3-1 to end a poor run of form and climb to second place in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

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The partnership formed by Coquelin and Cazorla has been the key to Arsenal’s defensive stability since January. However, both will be sidelined for a couple of months at least because of knee injuries. So the key question before the game was how Flamini and Ramsey would perform in central midfield.

Defensively, Flamini and Ramsey don’t provide as much protection to the back four as Coquelin and Cazorla. Flamini does not have Coquelin’s legs and therefore makes fewer tackles and interceptions. That relative lack of pace means Flamini must be very careful about his positional play. There were a few times when he recklessly played in a more advanced position than Ramsey. The Wales midfielder has more stamina than Cazorla but he doesn’t have his tactical discipline and doesn’t read the game as well yet. Ramsey put himself in trouble a couple of times by holding onto the ball too long. Hopefully, Ramsey and Flamini will iron out those glitches in the next few weeks.

Offensively, we lost much of our fluency in our passing game without Cazorla. Ramsey can’t pull the strings in midfield as well as Cazorla, but he compensated with his relentless activity. On the other hand, Ramsey provides more penetration with his deep runs and is a bigger goal threat.

Wenger’s tactical shift

Wenger made two changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Norwich a week ago with Campbell and Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Sanchez and Cazorla in the starting lineup. Sanchez’s hamstring injury put a bit of pressure on Campbell and the Ox to be more efficient in the final third. Both forwards struggled with the final ball and gave no decent service to Giroud. They also poorly combined with the fullbacks although Allardyce’s 5-2-3 system left the flanks exposed.

Starting on the left wing, the Ox overhit a long ball for Giroud in the 13th and sent a cross over the bar in the 21st. The manager realized that playing inverted wingers did not help stretch the Sunderland defense and asked Campbell and the Ox to swap positions. That tactical move paid off in the 33rd when Ozil slipped a through ball to Campbell, who ghosted past Yedlin to beat Pantilimon with a low strike. The Gunners opened the scoring against the run of play as they converted their first chance of the game while the Black Cats were the more threatening side so far.

The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud is no urban legend. They both had a hand in the opener. It was Ramsey who found Giroud back to goal in the 33rd. The Frenchman held off O’Shea to connect with Ozil, who played Campbell in. Six minutes later, Ramsey fed Giroud inside the area. Kaboul shoved Giroud, who fell to the ground. It could have been a penalty but the referee did not blow the whistle. The Sunderland defense was helpless in the 63rd when Ramsey picked out Giroud. Ramsey took a pass from Monreal to make a cross for Giroud, who headed the ball into the bottom corner for a 2-1 lead.

Ramsey’s deep runs

Giroud only won 20% of his duels, but he showed accuracy in front of goal with all his shots on target. He could have scored from an Ozil corner in the 66th but Yedlin cleared his header off the line. The France international was replaced by Chambers in the 81st as Wenger tried to shackle the flanks by playing with four fullbacks.

Ramsey sealed the win in stoppage time by pouncing on a loose ball to score from four yards with a sliding effort. He finished the match with a goal and an assist but if Ramsey had been more clinical, he could have added two or three more goals. On the stroke of halftime, Monreal cut the ball back for Ramsey, who fired into the side-netting from 10 yards. In that kind of situation, he definitely should have caught the frame.

Ramsey has also developed a good understanding with Ozil. The Germany playmaker needs movement around him to express his talent and Ramsey is a fantastic outlet in that regard with his deep runs. Ozil fed Ramsey with a ball over the top in the 71st. Back to goal, Ramsey had enough time to control the ball and turn, but he attempted an acrobatic volley that Pantilimon easily saved. In stoppage time, Ozil squared the ball back to Ramsey, who fired straight at the goalkeeper from 14 yards. Ramsey was a bit wasteful but his overall performance was good with four shot assists.

Adjusting to Campbell and the Ox

In his most consistent season at the club, Ozil produced another stellar performance with five shot assists. Ozil obviously caught the eye of the fans with his 12th league assist this season. He also won 2 of 2 tackles, 5 fouls and 83% of his duels. The Germany playmaker simply had the best stats of all the attacking players at the Emirates stadium.

I thought it was interesting to see him work on his understanding with Campbell and the Ox. Ozil is pretty much like a quarterback and therefore easily finds fast receivers like Walcott and Sanchez. It took Ozil a bit more time to adjust to Giroud’s lack of pace and Ramsey’s all-around profile.

Injuries have recently forced Ozil to deal with second-string players like Campbell and the Ox. Campbell has average pace but he made a smart run for the opener. And it’s no coincidence if Ozil also made the assist for Campbell’s first Arsenal goal against Swansea in October. Campbell and Ozil seem to understand each other well. It’s a different story with the Ox. He’s technically more gifted than Campbell but he still needs to improve his reading of the game. Ozil attempted to play the Ox in twice in the first half, but each time his final ball was intercepted.

More vulnerable on counterattacks

Arsenal will have to find a better balance between defending and attacking because a weak side like Sunderland created too many chances in my eyes. The Gunners have surrendered the lead in their last three league games. They found the resources to win in the second half but without Cech’s heroics it could have been a draw and two more points dropped.

Some of the chances resulted from lost duels. It’s part of the game but the players involved must question themselves. Yedlin outpaced Ozil in the ninth minute to make a cross for Fletcher, who outjumped Bellerin to head the ball across goal. Watmore, left unmarked by Koscielny, headed wide. A minute later, Mertesacker failed to stop a cross from Watmore. Monreal’s awkward clearance bounced off Borini and Flamini. It took a diving save from Cech to prevent an own-goal from Flamini. In the 89th, Chambers was not tight enough to Rodwell, who fed Van Aanholt. The Sunderland wingback made a run behind Bellerin only to fire over the bar.

The Black Cats also capitalized on the lack of protection provided by Flamini and Ramsey to hit Arsenal on the fast break. Fletcher pounced on a clearance from the Sunderland defense in the fourth minute to find Watmore, who sent Borini clean through on goal. The Italian forward wasted his chance with an effort straight at Cech. Flamini was in a too advanced position on that play and Mertesacker too far from Borini. Koscielny then made a positional mistake in the 27th when Kaboul intercepted a pass for Giroud, but Mertesacker killed the counterattack with a sliding tackle.

Cech’s reflex save

The Gunners retreated well in the 57th but Flamini’s passivity allowed Fletcher to pick his spot from 25 yards for a low drive that Cech palmed away. They gave Sunderland another counterattacking opportunity in the 75th by poorly executing the offside trap. No Gunner pressured M’Vila, who picked out Watmore with a long ball. Played onside by Mertesacker, Watmore could only muster a tame shot.

Sunderland’s equalizer came from a set piece. Koscielny made a silly foul on Watmore along the touchline in the 44th. Giroud flicked M’Vila’s subsequent free kick into his own net. The Frenchman used his left foot while it would have been easier to kick the ball out of play with his right foot. As the saying goes: it’s the situation that dictates the foot you should use, not your personal preference.

Giroud is usually a reliable defender on set pieces but he went missing in the 58th. Toivonen beat Giroud to the ball to redirect M’Vila’s corner toward the far post. Fletcher reacted more quickly than Mertesacker but had his sliding effort stopped by Cech with a reflex save.

Monreal was our best defender on Saturday, making 5 interceptions and winning 4 of 4 tackles and 75% of his duels. By contrast, Bellerin had another disappointing game. The Spanish rightback was not sharp defensively and too passive offensively. Kaboul outmuscled Bellerin in the 31st to cross the ball for Borini who headed wide. M’Vila then intercepted a poor pass from Bellerin in the 72nd but missed the target with a long-range strike.

Staying healthy before Christmas

Bellerin was surprisingly shy in the final third. He opted for a backpass a couple of times when he should have taken on a defender or reached the byline. Flamini set him up with a backheel flick in the 65th, but Bellerin had his low shot blocked. Maybe a pass to Ozil was the better option on that play.

The Gunners are just two points behind Leicester. However, the standings mean nothing in the beginning of December. We have a more difficult schedule in the second half of the season and our rivals could improve by then. The Citizens have also been hit by injuries and the Red Devils’ attack hasn’t clicked yet as we are just one point clear of both teams. Now the priority is to avoid further injuries before the busy Christmas period, when sides can drop a lot of points.