Match Report: Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland

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Same old story. Lots of possession, not much end product. Welcome to the new season!

In the aftermath of our wanderings around Asia and Africa, and the comings and goings of players, the game had a disjointed, preseason feel to it. We controlled possession and tried to play a pressure game high up the pitch, but our attacks lacked fluidity. All our new signings played – Cazorla and Podolski started, with Giroud replacing the latter midway through the second half.

Sunderland were unambitious, but looked capable of hurting us with quick, wide counter-attacks when we lost possession high up the field. One such early chance resulted in Szczesny making a great save from McClean. That was the best chance of the match until Giroud missed a sitter late on. Colback had a decent shot from distance for them after Diaby lost possession around our box, but the rest was all us.

Cazorla thumped one in from long range that Mignolet saved well. He also had a few half-chances which he sent wide, and released Walcott to combine with Podoslki in a manner very reminscent of last season’s RvP/Walcott combinations – near post cross to a near post run. Gervinho threated repeatedly, and Giroud came on to find space and send a volley wide, and then miss an easy chance late on from Cazorla’s cute through ball.

Defensively we were focused and composed, and apart from a few lapses in the first-half, gave nothing away.

In the middle, Diaby was a man without a country – not performing any sort of role that either Arteta or Cazorla were familiar with. In truth, more than RvP’s finishing (he still needed others to create chances for him), we missed Song’s composure and ability to create time and space in midfield without interrupting the flow of the game. Diaby and Ramsey did too many twists and turns before eventual making quite unsinspired, often awry passes.

It didn’t help that the game was played in scorching heat – players were cramping up as early as the 70th minute, and a number of them seemed to be completely shattered by the end of it. There wasn’t much to take from this game, and although we are in a better than at the start of last season, this is still very much a team in transition.

Individual performances:

Szczesny (7/10)
Made a key early save from a one-on-one with James McClean, and was otherwise alert and commanding. A bit too impetuous coming off his line last season (notably at Euro 2012), he caused a moment of panic in the first half when he ended up near the corner flag for a ball that Vermaelen already had covered. Didn’t have much to do, but stopped us from going 1-0 down 4 minutes into the first game of the season.

Jenkinson (7/10)
Started last season because of injuries, and looked like a raw talent with a lot of pace and power, and a lot to learn. Seems to be older and wiser now. Started this season because of injuries once again, but now has more tactical nous owing to last year’s experiences. Has a long way to to, but what’s encouraging is that he involves himself in the right parts of the game at the right time – joined the attack well on several occasions, and was always covering his flank when the other team was in possession. On the ball, he kept things very simple, and made really quick decisions. Still doing the patented “40 yard backpass” quite often. Ireland’s latest great white hope, James McClean, was awfully quiet against our Leroy.

Mertesacker (8/10)
Classy and composed. The battle for places at centreback will be interesting this season. He dawdled early on to let McClean in for the one-on-one, but was otherwise excellent. Made great interceptions, and showed his terrific touch and composure when distributing. A few passes went astray, but like Vermaelen, he likes to move it move it fast, early and accurately. Has barely played any football this calendar year, and did really well despite having spent most of his preseason practising silly dance routines with Lukas Podolski in Nigeria.

Vermaelen (7/10)
Captain. Unfussy and professional. Got off to a good start with a clean sheet and a solid performance. Didn’t overcommit as he’s prone to, and was at the right places at the right times.

Gibbs (8/10)
Excellent today. The run of games last season, and a proper pre-season this time around might prove crucial to his development. Solid and composed, he offered great energy down the left, and dealt with the varied pacy threats of Sessegnon, Frazier Campbell and Ahmed El Mohammedy quite well. He’s an intelligent footballer, and this is most visible in how he times his attacking movements and involvements.

Arteta (6/10)
Looked rusty, and looked like he missed Song. Was the anchor at the base of midfield, but with Diaby roaming around, and Cazorla still getting used to things, he missed a partner in crime. So often last season Song and Arteta would take turns toying with opposition midfields – seemingly with endless time on the ball, they kept possession brilliantly between them, and dictated the tempo. Today we saw Arteta having to move the ball a lot quicker than usual, and seeing a lot less of it than he’d like. Will be interesting to see the new partnerships that develop, hopefully with Wilshere/Sahin/AN Other.

Diaby (5/10)
I can’t shake the feeling that Diaby is the footballing equivalent of a basketball player. A lanky black dude (well, how else would you put it?) – he steals, dribbles and shoots, with a few run-of-the-mill passes here and there, and a penchant for doing all sorts of body spins, and something akin to a pump fake using his feet.

His comebacks always show the same type of arrested development. The skill, running and dribbling aren’t the problem – it’s his sloppiness on the ball, poor passing and lack of alertness that return with every “Diaby is like a new signing” moment. He did okay, and had a couple of decent shots, but his passing got progressively worse. Too often he holds on to the ball for too long without properly protecting it, and it unfortunately tends to be in our own half. Had one of those moments around our left-back position today, resulting in a clear shooting chance for Jack Colback. Still very oblivious as to where opponents are, and is 26 going on 16 as far as awareness and decision making go.

Cazorla (8/10)
Shiny and happy. The bright spark for us today who promised much, and only narrowly failed to deliver. He’s tricky, quick, amazingly two-footed, but is also all about end product – made telling passes when he could, and took his chances well, and without hesitation. Wasn’t awed or daunted, and although he did get muscled off the ball a few times, he generally dealt well with decent Premiership midfield opposition, despite being man marked by Lee Cattermole throughout. Pleasingly, he harried and won possession back on a number of occasions, and didn’t stop running all game.

He had a little bit of an “I don’t know what I’m doing in the middle of this mess” face on at times, but he’ll settle soon. A Spanish journo recently said that Cazorla doesn’t speak a word of English, and that it might as well be Chinese to him. But given the way he combined so effortlessly with those around him, we’ll have to bring out the old “he speaks the language of football” cliché. He’s an ideal Wenger player, that’s all that can be said.

Walcott (6/10)
Van Persie and Song are gone, but Walcott remains (for now). The beneficiary of so much goodwilll throughout his career despite such prolonged periods of frustration and mediocrity, Theo seemed to have a lost a little of his aura today. I wonder if Arsène’s statements about his contract negotiations were designed to let him know how vulnerable he is.

The problem with Theo is that he became a star before really becoming a footballer. He’s dealt well with stardom, but hasn’t managed to progress as well on the pitch. Unfortunately we’re now at a crossroads where he wants to earn what his celebrity is worth, and the club wants to pay him what his football is worth.

He was fairly anonymous today, but his pace allows him to have “moments”, and that’s really been his Arsenal career so far. Lost the ball several times, made poor passes to teammates, but managed a shot and a header (both were off target), and wriggled free to set Podolski up for a difficult chance. Had a few decent dribbles just before and after the half, but none of them amounted to much. Defensively, he seemed to be unwilling to commit himself for most of the match.

Has started to throw a lot of  little tantrums on the pitch, holding his arms out and ticking off teammates who misplace passes or don’t combine properly with him. Usually it’s his own fault, and tellingly, these teammates are usually the younger players (Jenkinson, for example). Watch this space for how his contract situation unfolds. Our new signings are all on reasonable wages – Cazorla, Podolski, Arteta, Giroud are all around or under the £90,000 per-week mark. Does Walcott seriously expect to be able to justify himself earning more than Santi Cazorla?

Podolski (6/10)
Overall he came off looking like a poor man’s Van Persie. Which is OK really given the price he came for, and the talent and experience he has. He’ll give us options going forward (in every sense of the word). He was terrier-like today –  chasing down and running after everything, and unsettled the defenders quite a bit. He used his stocky physique well, holding up the ball with his back to goal to find space and passes – very much like Robin used to, but not as elegantly. Annoyingly, he spent a bit too much time gesticulating to teammates, and didn’t run into available spaces or drag defenders around when he had the chance, but he needs time.

Gervinho (7/10)
An enigma for much of last season, he was a lot more confident today, but still very frustrating. The ability is there for all to see, but he takes too many touches almost every time he has the ball. He wanted to be involved today, and was constantly running at defenders on either flank, and worked 3 or 4 shooting chances that were all blocked. He will be a big asset to us if he keeps this up, and an even bigger asset if he can start getting his shots off quicker. Was painfully too-right-footed on the left though.

Giroud (6/10)
Replaced Podolski. As expected, he dazzled Sunderland’s poor neanderthals into brief homoerotic confusion to find space for a few chances, but couldn’t put them away. Should have sealed the game when he very cleverly bent his run to meet Cazorla’s equally clever through ball, but put it wide. He tried hard once he came on, and wasn’t afraid to tell teammates how and when he wanted the ball (Jenkinson picked up on this very quickly, and hit him with 2 or 3 crosses). He’s clearly not the quickest, but has good movement and skill, and despite it being his first game, he held his own against the likes of O’Shea and Cuellar. There was an odd moment during the broadcast when a substitution was taking place, and the cameras caught a beaming O’Shea asking Giroud something. Whatever it was I hope he said no.

Ramsey (5/10)
Replaced Diaby. Was pretty much like last season’s Ramsey. Hasn’t had any time to train with the team, and wasn’t involved in preseason because of Team GB (where Stuart Pearce’s revolutionary training methods can’t have helped), so we’ll give him some time before proclaiming that he’s the shittest footballer ever and that we’ll drive him to the airport ourselves, etcetera etcetera. Too, too, too, too many touches at times where he needed to be decisive and pass or shoot quickly – wasted the runs that players were making for him, and allowed the opposition to get into position when we had them on the back foot. Tried, as always, to make things happen.

Arshavin (6/10)
Replaced Walcott. Was immediately more involved than Theo had been all game. Looked fitter and sharper than at the start of previous seasons, and embarked on a few nice runs and sprayed the ball around nicely. Perhaps there’s now a more serious mood in the camp, and he’s a bit more focused. It can only have helped to see the work rate and application of fellow-midget Cazorla, who was playing in Andrei’s supposed preferred position. There’s no point in speculating on future, but I think if Walcott is sold, he might see out his conrtact to provide some continuity in attack.

Others:

Chris Foy
He is a preening fool, and really should have handed out 1 if not 2 yellow cards to Sunderland players – to Cattermole for a deliberate handball, and one to Cuellar for blocking off Gervinho. Clearly wanted to have a nice, uncontroversial start to the season, although the game was played in a good spirit, and he didn’t have much to do. Kept track of Sunderland’s timewasting very well though – a new FA directive perhaps?

Martin O’Squeal
Not at his simian best. Didn’t really do anything dastardly to us apart from signing Louis Saha the day before and then subbing him on so we all had to see his annoying Manc/Spud face.

Lee Cattermole
It’s very, very rare these days to see a player doing a 1v1 man marking job on an oppsition player for a whole game, and there’s not many tactical circumstances in which it can even happen, but it did against Cazorla today. Considering that he’s a psychotic bastard who is usually wildly over the top with his tackling, I have to give him some credit for not trying to hurt little Santi today. Our mew Spaniard is not an easy opponent to pin down – but at 5’6″ and playing his first Premiership game, he would have been an easy target. I remember watching Cattermole as a youngster emerging at Boro, playing a box-to-box role, and showing a decent range of passing. It’s a shame that a succession of managers have noticed that he likes to tackle, and have worked him into yet another cliché of the English game when he could have maybe been a bit more.

(I’ve written one other match report. It was Stoke 1-1 Arsenal from last April. Chris Foy was the referee. I feel like I’m in some terribly drab cycle of writing about us underperforming to clinch draws against shitkicking teams beginning with S that play in red-and-white stripes)

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