Preview by Numbers: Sunderland v. Arsenal

Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Saturday, October 25
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Kevin Friend
    • Assistants: Jake Collin and Constantine Hatzidakis
    • 4th Official: Lee Mason
  • This Match, Last Year: Sunderland 1 - 3 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 57 Arsenal wins, 50 Sunderland wins, 39 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: D-D-W-D-L-D
  • Sunderland's League Form: L-D-D-D-W-L
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 13 C / 56 F
Wednesday's classic smash and grab has left Arsenal sitting somewhat pretty in their European group; a win from both Arsenal and Dortmund on Matchday 4 will see both clubs through to the Round of 16 with two games to spare. That's nice. Arsenal's only realistic shot at winning the group at that point would be to beat Dortmund on Matchday 5 by a large enough margin to claim the tiebreaker. Honestly, right about now, that sounds nearly impossible, but we'll cross that bridge if we come to it.

Back to domestic matters and Arsenal have just two wins from eight Premier League matches. Their opponent on Saturday, Sunderland, is coming off an eight goal loss. The atmosphere is going to be pretty tense. Arsenal have to do everything they can to keep the good times flowing after their surprise Belgian comeback. All of these draws are going to have to start turning into wins if Arsenal want to spend 2015 talking about Champions League qualification.

We're at a point right now where 4th place West Ham and 18th place Newcastle are separated by just six points. Wins are at a premium. Three points are vital.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Ospina (thigh,) Koscielny (Achilles,) Ozil (knee,) Debuchy (ankle,) Giroud (ankle)
Doubts: Walcott, Gnabry, and Diaby (all match fitness,) Sanogo (hamstring)
Suspended: Wilshere (one match, yellow card accumulation)

Jack Wilshere needed treatment after leaving his leg out
in a tackle with Gaston Ramirez. The booking Jack picked up
for doing so leaves him suspended this weekend.
Well, the good news is that this list hasn't really changed all that much since midweek, unless someone picked up something in Anderlecht that I am, at writing time, unaware of. Danny Welbeck was limping around a bit, but that's all I can think of to be concerned about.

Because Arsenal are really good at getting bookings this year, Jack Wilshere will serve a one match ban for yellow card accumulation; it's really quite insane that Arsenal have now had two players pick up five domestic bookings since it's not even November. Calum Chambers will return to the XI, though whether he starts at right back or center back is Arsene Wenger's call. Given how uncomfortable Nacho Monreal has looked in the center, I'd really prefer Chambers in the middle and Hector Bellerin at right; I predict Arsene Wenger will side with experience, however.

Mikel Arteta still has not made an appearance since his calf injury, though I do believe he's available, so whether Mathieu Flamini retains his starting position remains to be seen. Wilshere's suspension and Mesut Ozil's injury means if Arsenal continue to play a 4-1-4-1 (God, why?!?) it'll be Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla centrally.

As for the wide positions, I don't expect Theo Walcott to be ready to go yet; we'll need at least a cameo appearance from him off the bench before I start predicting him in the starting XI. Alexis Sanchez should start on one side, though which side remains to be seen. I'm curious as to what Lukas Podolski will have to do to get a start; the last remaining question in the XI would be whether you start Poldi or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I'd love to see the nod go to Poldi, but for the sake of safe predictions, I'll slide the Ox in there and see if I'm pleasantly wrong.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Chambers, Mertesacker, Monreal, Gibbs, Flamini, Ramsey, Cazorla, Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck.

Sunderland Squad News

Out: Jones (hamstring,) Alvarez (knee,) Coates (hip,) Giaccherini (ankle)

Wait, you can bring in defenders after the window closed?
Does Wenger know this?
The Black Cats have four injury concerns at the moment. Defender Billy Jones has made only four appearances all season and is currently out with a hamstring injury. Midfielder Ricky Alvarez, on loan from Inter, has been out for a month with a knee injury and defender Sebastian Coates, on loan from Liverpool, has a hip injury. Both are expected back in November. Meanwhile, Emanuele Giaccherini, who scored against Arsenal last year, is out until December with an ankle injury.

Gus Poyet is highly likely to make a number of changes to his squad after they lost 8-0 to Southampton last week. Whether former Arsenal goalkeeper Vito Mannone retains his place remains to be seen; Poyet has the availability of a decent back-up in ex-Manchester City keeper Costel Pantilimon.

This week, Poyet signed free agent and former French international defender Anthony Reveillere. Even with that in mind, if Poyet makes changes, it's not likely to be to the back line and is more likely in midfield, where he has options like Jack Rodwell and Aaron Johnson, both of whom did not start last weekend. Jordi Gomez and Will Buckley are the two midfielders most likely to drop out of the XI.

Predicted XI: Mannone, Vergini, Brown, O'Shea, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Larsson, Rodwell, Johnson, Wickham, Fletcher.

Current Form

Tough day at the office.
The pessimist will say that Arsenal's 2-1 win over Anderlecht midweek is just paper over the cracks; the optimist will say that it's the kind of win that can galvanize the team. The opportunist will sneak past both of them to order the next drink at the bar.

If you don't count the Community Shield, then Arsenal have yet to win back-to-back matches this season. After beating Crystal Palace, they drew Besiktas. After beating Aston Villa, they lost to Southampton in the League Cup. After beating Galatasaray, they lost to Chelsea. Through eight league matches, Arsenal have just two wins. The last time Arsenal had two or fewer wins through their first eight matches? 1994. Arsenal finished 12th that season. Of course, Arsenal had fewer points after eight games just three years ago, when they had 10 points from their first eight matches; Arsenal still finished 3rd that year.

Sunderland's heavy loss to Southampton last week dropped the Black Cats to 17th place, though they are only three points behind 7th place Arsenal and five points behind 4th place West Ham. That's how insane the table is this season: Chelsea and City are running away with the top two, Southampton are making a strong case for being a legitimate third right now, Burnley and QPR are certainly the bottom two, and everyone else is in the middle.

Prior to last week's 8-0 reverse, Sunderland had lost only once this season in the league, though that result itself remains QPR's only win. Sunderland, like Arsenal, have a ton of draws. They took a point from the Hawthorns. They took a point from United. They took a point from Spurs. They played consecutive 0-0 draws with Burnley and Swansea. They beat Stoke 3-1 just before the international break (after Stoke bounced Sunderland from the League Cup.) Then, last week's 8-0 shocker happened.

Match Facts

Some currently hurt players are shown here, looking
happier in days gone by.
Arsenal took all six possible points from Sunderland last season, winning 3-1 at the Stadium of Light in September and 4-1 at the Emirates in February.

This corresponding fixture last year was played just after the September international break; it was Mesut Ozil's first match in red and white (well, yellow and blue really, since Sunderland was actually in red and white.) Ozil assisted on Olivier Giroud's opening goal just 11 minutes into the match. Sunderland, however, were level just minutes after the restart from a Craig Gardner penalty. Aaron Ramsey went on to score twice to seal the three points, though Jozy Altidore should have had an equalizer to make it 2-2 when Martin Atkinson failed to play advantage on a foul.

Arsenal won the reverse fixture comfortably, with a brace from Olivier Giroud and goals from Tomas Rosicky and Laurent Koscielny to make it 4-0 before the hour mark. Emanuele Giaccherini scored a consolation goal in the 81st.

Arsenal's recent record at the Stadium of Light, however, is a mixed bag. Arsenal won a nervy 1-0 there in February of 2013, after Carl Jenkinson was sent off. Arsenal had to come from behind to win 2-1 in February of 2012, with the on-loan Thierry Henry scoring the injury time winner; a week later, Arsenal played at the Stadium of Light again in the FA Cup and lost 2-0.  Prior to Henry's winner, Arsenal had gone three matches without a win in Sunderland.

The Referee

They don't look too happy...
The referee is Leicestershire-based Kevin Friend. Arsenal have seen Friend once this year and Gunners fans may recall that he didn't appear to do a very good job; he was the man in the middle for the 2-2 draw at Everton in August. During a large swath of that match, it felt like Arsenal were whistled for a foul every time they breathed on an Everton player; indeed, four different Arsenal players were booked to Everton's one. Arsenal were whistled for 18 fouls to Everton's 10. Arsenal's comeback, however, means they still have not lost a match with Friend as the referee, with four wins and three draws over seven matches.

Sunderland fans are also not thrilled at the prospect of having Kevin Friend; the Black Cats lost both matches last year in which Friend was in the middle. Last November at Stoke, center back Wes Brown was controversially sent off in the 36th minute for clattering into Charlie Adam; Brown won the ball in the challenge. Stoke won the match 2-0. That was the only red card Friend showed all of last season. Friend was subsequently dropped for the next week of matches after the decision. Sunderland also, later in the season, lost 2-1 to Liverpool at Anfield with Friend as the referee.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): West Ham United v. Manchester City; Boleyn Ground, London
  • Saturday: Liverpool v. Hull City; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Southampton v. Stoke City; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Saturday: West Bromwich Albion v. Crystal Palace; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
  • Saturday (late): Swansea City v. Leicester City; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Sunday (early): Burnley v. Everton; Turf Moor, Burnley
  • Sunday (early): Tottenham Hotspur v. Newcastle United; White Hart Lane, London
  • Sunday (late): Manchester United v. Chelsea; Old Trafford, Manchester
  • Monday (night): Queens Park Rangers v. Aston Villa; Loftus Road, London

Nothing is unthinkable on a European away night

"It wasn't the result that Arsenal deserved but it was what they needed right now" - Jim Gordon

It all happened in the blink of an eye, didn't it? Ten minutes before Kieran Gibbs' world class equalizer after a brilliant Calum Chambers cross, Belgian international Anthony Vanden Borre has a wonderful opportunity to put Belgian upstarts Anderlecht 2-0 up with a little over ten minutes remaining - fortunately, all the right back could do was fluffed his chance off the bar and then saw Andy Najar drill the rebound into the side netting. Yes, Arsenal were just THAT close to going 2-0 down late on and unlikely to score three in the final ten minutes...but football has a funny way of doing the unthinkable.

After Gibbs' brilliant volley, a stoppage time winner came by way of the happy-go-lucky but not so content Lukas Podolski after Sanchez's cross deflected in the box and fell to the German less than six yards out with only the keeper to blast it past. The final score read 2-1 Arsenal and we headed back to London with all three points - yes, in the end that is all that matters, but perhaps you shouldn't look at it in such simple terms when push comes to shove.
Kieran Gibbs celebrates his brilliantly struck equalizer - it, along with Anthony Vanden Borre's miss, flipped the match on it's head...but it should never have come to that (image courtesy of the official Facebook page of the UEFA Champions League)
Truthfully, inches do win matches and at the end of the day, football is about winning matches, but if you're honest with yourselves, we were poor and no we should not have taken all three points. Anyone that will sit there and tell you that Anderlecht are not worthy or more akin to a pub side really doesn't do the side or themselves any credit - the Belgian side can call on the likes of the immensely talented Youri Tielemans, the craft of Dennis Praet, Andy Najar's pace and trickery, Steven Defour's grit and leadership and a general nature of hard work, desire and youthful exuberance that makes Anderlecht a more formidable opponent than most want to discuss. Are they in the same class as Arsenal? No, surely not and no one can ever claim anything of the sort, but the first 87-minutes of the match showed just how close the young purple upstarts came to shocking the very foundations of the Arsenal fan-base.

At the end of the day, Anderlecht did not find the critical second goal and our European experience and talent kicked in when it mattered most...the final four minutes of the match. While at the end of the day we are all happy to be sitting comfortably in second in the group (despite the likelihood of a round of 16 clash with a European giant), we still need to ask questions...a lot of questions. While Sean and I will probably continue to disagree (haha) about the quality of yesterday's opponent, Sean and I will also agree on the state of which the team currently sits - once again, we were not good enough, and other than the performances of Sanchez and Gibbs, we were abysmally poor.
Even Nick Clegg does such a wonderful job in conveying the collective feelings on last night's result - thanks Nick
Arsene Wenger's press conference in the post-match came with an interesting bit from Le Prof. While the gaffer will have himself (and many others) that our spirit saw us through, I am going to have to disagree. We could have very easily lost this match, and in truth, while we did incredibly well to fight back at the end, the truth of the matter is that it was Anderlecht's lack of mental strength that saw them lose all the points. Perhaps even more significant is the notion of the question being posed to the tune of "What if this was not Anderlecht...what if this was Dortmund, Bayern, Real, Barca?" - said question was seen all over Twitter and Facebook, with many Gooners recognizing the importance of the three points, but not being under any illusions of just how poor we were.

There are many times were certain things can fall on the blame on the manager. That is not to say that people hate the man (though some certainly seem to these days), but the headmaster is usually the first point of contact for many when things do not go as planned - I can honestly say tonight that I do not think Wenger can shoulder the blame. I will admit that I was rather put off by the XI we fielded, but it's the performance of the players on the whole that was the biggest issue of all. Lacking enthusiasm, cutting-edge, often being outworked in many areas of the pitch and seemingly bereft of desire, this must fall on the players.  

Many will say that it's up to the manager to motivate his players on the touchline or in the dressing room during the break; we did come out a little stronger in the second half after a woeful performance in the first 45minutes, but if the manager is not going to push you on from the touchline ( Wenger often does not), then the players certainly must dig deep.
For better or worse, Alexis Sanchez has been our most inspired player this season.   One can only hope his performances will rub off on the rest of the squad (image courtesy of Arsenal's official Facebook page)
So often, and for many years now, Arsenal seem to lack the aforementioned qualities that we need to show consistently - for me, this comes down to a lack of real leadership on the pitch. We rarely have players who want to lead by either example, words or both. Sanchez put in another brilliant all around display yesterday from the first minute till the last, but it was not till the 88th minute that we finally showed a will to win...where was this for the first 87minutes? All to often, it seems as though we do not start playing until we have to - sure it's impressive that we have a strong track record of storming back into matches, but against top quality sides, that'll never cut the mustard (see any of our recent pastings against sides of note). It's an area we must improve in, and it's hard to see us being a contender in any competition until we learn to take a match by the scruff of the neck from kick-off till the final whistle.

Perhaps Jim Gordon put it best. A loss last night and we were potentially in a bit of quick sand, but the win see's us just three points away from being all but assured of our passage into the knockout stages. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't efficient but it was in fact a win, one that hopefully puts a little more confidence in the players and gives us a platform to hopefully build on moving forward.

All in all, we can all agree that football is fluid, ever changing, and possesses the ability produce moments where surely you'd think it could never be. For much of the match, the unthinkable was that Anderlecht as going to steal all three points. Once the Belgians went 1-0 and then spurned their glorious chance to make it two to the good, the unthinkable was that they would walk way with nothing. Many of us are likely to remain divided on so many issues and the unfortunate truth is that a performance and a result such as last night's will do nothing but exacerbate the divide, but we can all certainly agree that we're all grateful that the unthinkable shined down on us during a frustrating night in Brussels.