Pre-Match Report

Sunderland v Arsenal: The Inside Track

By Chris Harris


“To see partnerships developing is very good for the future of the team. This team plays for the immediate result but also for the future.” - Arsene Wenger


How Arsenal needed that win on Thursday night.

It’s tinged with regret, of course - beating West Bromwich Albion is almost certainly too little, too late in terms of the title race. But although Arsenal are still closer to Manchester United in fifth than they are to Tottenham in second, they are back in pole position for a place in next season’s Champions League.





Look beyond the table and there are more crumbs of comfort in Arsenal’s performance - and personnel.





For starters, Aaron Ramsey and Mohamed Elneny look like a viable midfield partnership. “They were very dynamic,” noted Arsene Wenger. “They were very mobile as well and available in the build-up during the game.

“They were very good and shared the defensive job in a very positive way as well. Elneny has played more games but he showed that he can repeat his performances and be consistent. Ramsey has just come back but he had a good focus on the quality of his game. It was a positive experience.”

Meanwhile, Alexis and Hector Bellerin’s nascent right-wing relationship was a constant source of concern for West Brom. Wenger can see huge promise in that double-act.

“In the first half there were some interesting combinations and they looked very incisive and very dangerous as well,” he said.

Team news

Arsenal: Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee)

Sunderland: Borini (calf/shin), Rodwell (doubt), Lens (doubt)

“Hector had chances, Alexis had chances but I felt that in the second half they played a bit too far away from each other. After that everyone suffers. The first-half performance was very convincing because they played as a unit.

“To see partnerships developing is very good for the future of the team. This team plays for the immediate result but also for the future. To see players like Elneny coming in in January, Iwobi coming in at the beginning of March and Hector confirming that he will be a good prospect for the club is of course very positive.”

Arsenal scored as many goals from outside the box on Thursday as they had in their 33 previous Premier League games. That says much about Alexis’ return to form - no Arsenal player is more likely to try their luck from range - and it has given Wenger encouragement.

“It is a bit incidental, but I think it is a bit linked to the way teams play against us now because everybody comes to Arsenal and you see one striker out,” he said.

“For example, Saloman Rondon was on the bench [for West Brom] and another defensive midfielder was in. Crystal Palace did exactly the same and we have to learn to cope with that.

“How we can cope with it is to be quicker with our passing, quicker in our movement and as well by being more dangerous with shots from outside the box, because that is something that gets the defenders out. So I’m pleased we can score goals from outside the box.

“We had a similar performance to [the] Crystal Palace [game],” added Wenger. “We had strong possession, good movement and quick passing. It was maybe a bit quicker than against Crystal Palace. The difference was that we scored early goals and that gave us a bit more reassurance.

“Overall I think it was a convincing win with a good, creative game. The regret coming out of the game is that we didn’t score enough goals. The opportunities were there and at the end of the day you want to be a bit more reassured [by scoring more].”


You have to admire Bellerin. As the 20-year-old has admitted, for a professional the second season is always the hardest. The element of surprise has gone, the fans’ expectations are higher and the opposition want to cut you down to size.

One-season wonders are not uncommon in football but Bellerin is at the other end of the scale. Not only has he built on his breakthrough campaign, he ends it in the PFA Team of the Year after impressing his peers as well as his manager.

Wenger has spoken warmly about Bellerin’s drive and maturity but why is he rated so highly by his opponents?






Gabriel and Hector Bellerin

Gabriel and Hector Bellerin







“The fact that he wants the ball and is always available,” said Wenger. “He is always ready to hurt you going forward with his pace and that is electric. That makes him very difficult. Across the first five yards he is very quick and he is very good in transition which is an important part of the modern game.

“He still has room for improvement as he is just 20 years old so if he keeps his feet on the ground, which I think he will, and keeps a good level of humility, I believe he will improve on his final ball, he will improve on his defending and he has room [to improve] heading the ball.

“When you look at the future, you think there is a lot more to come from him defensively, and offensively he is already [at a] top, top [level]. That is very positive.”


For all that, even Wenger admits that Bellerin will have his hands full this weekend.

Wahbi Khazri is his direct opponent at the Stadium of Light and, judging by the Tunisian international’s early impact at Sunderland, Arsenal’s right flank will be stretched to the limit.

Opta Facts

Arsenal are unbeaten in their last five Premier League trips to the Stadium of Light, winning the last four in a row (D1)

Olivier Giroud made his Premier League debut against Sunderland and has scored four goals in his last four appearances against them

Aaron Ramsey has scored three goals in his last four Premier League appearances against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light

Sam Allardyce’s team - as you’d expect - are well organised and compact. But Khazri, who undid Manchester United with a goal and an assist, gives them the attacking threat that might just secure their top-flight survival.

“He is a creative player,” said Wenger. “The north Africans are usually very gifted technically, and he is a right-footed player who plays on the left as well and [we will] have to stop him from cutting in as he has a very strong shot.

“He is very good at delivering set-pieces and takes all their set-pieces. He works hard for the team as well. He is a guy that Hector Bellerin will have to keep quiet.

“It is important period in the season [for Sunderland],” added Wenger. “When you go into the game of that intensity, your focus has to be 100 per cent because today to stay in the Premier League, teams need to be ready for a fight. We have to prepare mentally to face a very intense game.”



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