Emirates Stadium, London
February 21, 2014; 15:00 GMT
Arsenal FC and Sunderland FC will play each other this Saturday. Arsenal won the first encounter between these two, a 3-1 win at the Stadium of Light. In that match, Arsenal and their fans were riding of beating Tottenham and signing Mesut Ozil. In that game, Mesut Ozil showcased his quality both on the counterattack and when Arsenal played a possession game and Aaron Ramsey continued his fantastic goal-scoring record to start the season with a brace.
Recently, Arsenal have done their title chances no favors by dropping points at Southampton, by getting destroyed at Anfield, and by giving a listless performance against Manchester United. After this match and the one away to Stoke City, Arsenal play Everton in the FA Cup, Bayern Munich away, Tottenham away, Chelsea away, Manchester City, and Everton away, before an easier set of fixtures to end the season. It is crucial that they take all three points against inferior sides. However, playing with 10 men against Bayern Munich on Wednesday could have serious ramifications on many of Arsenal’s player’s fitness levels going into the match. This could make this match much more difficult than it should be, given the respective quality of the two sides.
Sunderland have improved since Gus Poyet took over for Paolo Di Canio. Not only have they improved their points per game haul in Premier League matches, they have reached the League Cup Final and have made it to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Interestingly enough, Vito Mannone, a former Arsenal goalkeeper, has play a role in Sunderland’s success, pulling out some top drawer performances to get Sunderland where they currently stand in all three domestic competitions. Given Arsenal’s fatigue and Sunderland being rather healthy, the Black Cats should have the belief that they can get at least a point from this match.
Arsenal – Team News, Line-up, and Formation
Arsenal come into this match with both injury concerns and concerns about fatigue. Playing against any side with 10 men for a majority of the match is energy-sapping, but it is particularly draining when one plays a side that keeps possession and moves their opponent around like Bayern Munich. Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Abou Diaby, Kim Kallstrom, Kieran Gibbs, and Thomas Vermaelen are all out with injuries. Olivier Giroud, who did not play in the FA Cup match against Liverpool or against Bayern Munich, may not start in this match. With that daunting run of the fixtures on the horizon, Arsene Wenger may look to sit Mesut Ozil. Ozil has only had a small break in playing since he has come to Arsenal. Not only have Ozil faced an increased minutes burden compared to his time at Real Madrid, but his is also playing in a league that is more physically demanding than La Liga. It may serve Arsenal best if Ozil recharges and returns for the FA Cup match against Everton.
Given the problems of injury and fatigue, along with the need to get all three points, Wenger may not look to make a large number of changes to the XI that started against Bayern. Wojciech Szczesny will stay in goal and the back four with most likely consist of Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, and Nacho Monreal. In front of the back five, Wenger will probably field Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere in order to have better control of possession, even though that does not seem an ideal pairing when one considers both sides of the game. In the attacking trio, if Wenger looks to sit Ozil, it is likely that Santi Cazorla plays, after being “Pires-ed” against Bayern Munich. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will start if fit, as his pace, dribbling, and direct running are something Arsenal surely need. Finally, this may be the match that sees Lukas Podolski return as a starter in a Premier League match. At center forward, despite the energetic performances Yaya Sanogo has had, to ask him to play three matches in six days seems too much. Wenger may reintroduce Giroud back into the side, as the only other option is Nicklas Bendtner.
Possible Starting Lineup [4-2-3-1]: Szczesny (GK); Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Arteta, Wilshere; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Podolski; Giroud
Sunderland – Team News, Line-up, and Formation
Sunderland have much less to worry about than Arsenal, when it comes to injuries and fatigue. Steven Fletcher and Carlos Cuellar, who have recently missed time due to injury, may be fit for this match. Goalkeeper Keiren Westwood will miss this match, allowing Vito Mannone to start against his former club.
It is likely that Poyet picks a back four of Phil Bardsley, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, and Marcos Alonso to play in front of Mannone. While the two center-backs may be comfortable dealing with the strength and lack of pace of Olivier Giroud, a player like Alex Oxlade Chamberlain running into the space between the full-back and the center back could cause this back four quite a few problems. Poyet could play two holders to give his back line some extra defensive cover. However, just placing men near the back four will not help if Arsenal move them around at will. It also compromises Sunderland’s ability to counter-attack efficiently. It is not like Xabi Alonso plays for this side. Instead, Poyet will probably field one defensive midifielder, Liam Bridcutt, who will sit right in front of the center-backs, effectively creating a back three. Jack Colback and Ki-Sung Yueng may play in the other central midfield roles in Poyet’s 4-1-4-1 formation. Out wide, it is likely that Fabio Borini starts on the left while Adam Johnson stays high and wide on the right. If Steven Fletcher does not return for this match, it does not really matter who Poyet plays at center forward. It will probably end up being Jozy Altidore.
Given their fitness advantage, Sunderland will probably look to take the fight to Arsenal from the start. They should press, kick, look to break, and make the most of their set-piece opportunities (which may open the door for Sebastian Larsson to start) in order to capitalize on their fitness advantage and attempt to make up for the gap in quality. A slow start from Arsenal, a recent proclivity of theirs in the Premier League, could lead to Sunderland taking a shock lead in the match.
Possible Line-up [4-1-4-1]: Mannone (GK); Bardsley, Brown, O’Shea, Alonso; Bridcutt; Johnson, Ki-Sung Yueng, Colback, Borini; Altidore
- At the Emirates, Sunderland and Arsenal have drawn nil-nil three times in the last five matches.
- Sunderland have never won a Premier League match at the Emirates and the last time they won at Arsenal was in 1983.
- Arsenal have been watertight at home, having kept a clean sheet in their last five EPL home games.
- Sunderland have kept four clean sheets in their last six away matches
- Sunderland have not lost in their last six away matches
Player to Watch For
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)
In his last few matches, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has looked like the most dangerous player to score of the Gunners. His pace, dribbling, and more direct style (relative to many of the other Arsenal players) has been a breath of fresh air. It has provided some much needed variation in attack. Given the composition of Sunderland’s back four and midfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain could exploit their lack of quickness to either score or create goal-scoring opportunities for others. It may be a lot to ask of a 20-year old, to be the most penetrative force. However, injuries to Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey have made that a necessity. Fortunately, he has the ability to meet this task.
Arsenal 2 – Sunderland 0
Arsenal will do themselves a world of good by starting with the same verve that had in the first ten minutes of their match against Bayern Munich. The sooner their score and use their possession to kill the game the better, as it mitigates the potential disadvantage they have in this match, with respect to fitness. If they start slow, the game may stay nil-nil for some time or Sunderland may find themselves in the lead. Arsenal may not have the energy to get that important goal or to come from behind to take all three points, the further the match goes one without Arsenal in the lead. If that happens, the result can only be seen as points dropped, not point won.
Blast From the Past
In honour of Dennis Bergkamp, on a day his statue will be unveiled at the Emirates, here is a tribute to the Dutchman