Sunderland vs. Arsenal: Gunners slip to 4th after lack of penetration exposed in 0-0 draw

Sterile domination. What’s the use of enjoying 70% of ball possession if you can’t even score? There was no glaring miss from the Gunners while Mannone made four good saves that you would expect from a decent goalkeeper. Sunday’s goalless draw at Sunderland means that Arsenal slipped to fourth place in the Premier League and will therefore depend on the points dropped by Manchester City to finish in the Top 3.

Sunderland vs. Arsenal

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The Gunners had 7 shots on target compared to just 3 for the hosts. However, those numbers are misleading. Sunderland created as many big chances as Arsenal. Credit to the Black Cats for putting in a shift and depriving the Gunners of time on the ball. But I thought Wenger got his team selection wrong by relying on the same starting lineup that defeated West Brom 2-0 on Thursday. Mertesacker and Giroud had a terrible game. Defoe created problems for the Arsenal defense by often isolating himself with the slow-footed Mertesacker. By contrast, the Sunderland centerbacks had Giroud in their pocket. The French striker was caught three times offside and missed the target with his two goal attempts.

When the Gunners were still chasing a winner in the second half, the manager made like-for-like substitutions, replacing Iwobi and Giroud with Walcott and Welbeck in the 71st minute before sending on Wilshere for Ozil in the 84th. The first question is: why did Wenger give Walcott the nod over Campbell? The Costa Rica international made a stronger impression than Walcott when they came off the bench against the Baggies. The second question is: why did the manager not shift from a 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 in order to put more pressure on the Sunderland defense?

Penalty shouts ignored

Kaboul and Kone had a quiet afternoon because they did not face a centerforward who could run at them. Giroud and Ozil made no dribble while Sanchez and Iwobi respectively had 5 and 4 successful dribbles. The trouble is that those dribbles were against midfielders and a fullback, which means that Kaboul and Kone were never pulled out of position. Welbeck has power and pace, but he doesn’t have the technique of a Van Persie or Henry.

In the end, Sanchez was the Gunner who tested Mannone the most. The Sunderland goalie palmed away a dipping free kick and a low drive from Sanchez in the 34th and 87th respectively. Sanchez nearly scored in the 35th when Giroud redirected a corner toward the far post but the Chile forward’s header was cleared off the line.

Iwobi had two chances, firing a low diagonal drive wide in the fourth minute and pouncing on a pass from Giroud in the 41st to have his effort blocked by Yedlin’s arm. It could have been a spot kick for Arsenal but the referee probably thought it was unintentional and that Yedlin had no time to get his arm out of the way. At least, Dean was consistent in his calls since he also turned down a penalty shout from Sunderland in the 37th when Defoe’s point-blank volley hit Mertesacker’s hand after Bellerin made a poor clearance.

Giroud and Ozil respectively had 4 and 5 shot assists but you would expect more in the final third from those two players. Giroud controlled a ball over the top from Sanchez to have his goal attempt blocked by a defender in the ninth minute. He then connected with a low cross from Monreal to flick the ball wide in the 24th. Ozil fired a long-range strike that took a deflection off a defender but Mannone still managed to make the save in the 31st. Leading the line in the last 20 minutes, Welbeck could only hit a low effort straight at Mannone in the 82nd.

Defoe torturing Mertesacker

Allardyce’s game plan was pretty obvious. The Black Cats targeted Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Arsenal’s poor defending on set pieces. Playing a high defensive line is always an issue when Mertesacker is in the team. Defoe outpaced the German centerback while chasing a long ball in the fifth minute, but Cech came off his line to clear the danger. Defoe beat Mertesacker to another long ball in the 50th and fired a half-volley that Cech parried. M’Vila pounced on the rebound for a long-range effort that Cech turned around the post.

The hosts repeated that same trick two more times. Cattermole played Defoe in with a long ball in the 64th but the Sunderland striker’s lob attempt sailed wide. Four minutes later, Defoe beat Mertesacker in a foot race to take a pass from Khazri but his low cross for an unmarked Borini was cut out by Koscielny. Mertesacker did not cover himself in glory by letting a low drive from Khazri slip through his legs in the 52nd. It took a diving save from Cech to deny Khazri.

Koscielny was Arsenal’s best defender on Sunday. He often made up for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and deflected out a shot from Khazri in the 14th after Ramsey lost possession from a throw-in. However, Koscielny was let down by his impetuosity twice. He gave away a dangerous free kick in the 21st by fouling Defoe on the edge of the box. Van Aanholt struck the woodwork with the subsequent set piece as Cech seemed helpless. In stoppage time, Koscielny was booked for a reckless challenge on Watmore.

Can Wilshere make a difference?

In midfield, Ramsey seemed to run out of gas in his second start since returning from a hamstring injury. The Wales international made no tackle and won only 33% of his duels according to the club’s website, forcing Elneny to contribute a bit more defensively. Elneny won 2 of 3 tackles and 75% of his duels, the best defensive stats for a Gunner.

Wilshere’s return to the first team was the only positive from Sunday’s game. The England midfielder has missed most of the season because of a calf bone injury. He can make a difference in the last three games with his deep runs a la Ramsey, his passing skills similar to Cazorla’s and his ability to score from distance.

I’m not sure what we should expect from the game against Norwich next Saturday. This is a match that Arsenal must win to keep the pressure on the two Manchesters in the race for third place. The Gunners have convincingly beaten Watford and West Brom this month but they have also dropped points against Crystal Palace and Sunderland. They definitely need to rediscover their finishing touch before facing the Citizens in two weeks.