Before every Arsenal fixture, we’ll bring you a Scouting Report on the Gunners’ next opponents.
Arsène Wenger's side host Sunderland at Emirates Stadium on Saturday afternoon. To find out more, we asked tactical expert Michael Cox.
It’s just five weeks since Sunderland last visited the Emirates, a 3-1 Arsenal victory, but Sam Allardyce is likely to deploy a somewhat unfamiliar side on Saturday.
There are two reasons. First, Allardyce has significantly changed his system over the past month. He was previously using a five-man defence, partly because the three centre backs, generally Sebastian Coates, John O’Shea and Younes Kaboul, were less exposed in terms of pace.
"Allardyce also has decent options in midfield, with 2013 FA Cup winner Jordi Gomez potentially featuring, but in defence things are less promising"
Meanwhile, Patrick van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin are both naturally attack-minded players who appreciated the freedom afforded in wing-back roles. Allardyce was using a 5-3-2 ahead of his previous trip here, although altered this slightly to play a 5-4-1.
Three successive defeats to Arsenal, Watford and Chelsea - combined with Kaboul suffering a hamstring injury which will keep him out for a couple of months - encouraged Allardyce to move away from that formation. Since the Boxing Day trip to Manchester City he’s used a four-man defence: both a 4-1-4-1 system which becomes 4-3-3 in the attacking phase of play, and a 4-4-1-1 which becomes 4-2-3-1.
The key to deciphering the system is essentially working out how many attackers Allardyce is using: Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson have generally started behind Jermain Defoe, while direct winger Duncan Watmore features in the latter, with Johnson redeployed in an unusual No 10 position.
Defoe isn’t a natural lone striker, but two goals last weekend in the 3-1 win over relegation rivals Aston Villa demonstrated his ability to take the fight to the opposition solo.
There’s a second reason Sunderland will be somewhat different to last month, however: squad rotation.
“If we didn’t have a game in midweek in the league, then the strongest possible team could probably play in the cup,” Allardyce said recently. “But that’s not the case so there’ll be a bigger rotation at Arsenal than there will be in any of the other games. We’ve got some injuries, so it may be forced upon us anyway.”
Allardyce’s primary task this season is avoiding relegation, and with Sunderland currently in 19th place, he inevitably considers Wednesday’s trip to Swansea - one place above the dropzone - his priority.
Therefore, his formation for Saturday will simply be a consequence of the players he decides to use, rather than being a particularly deliberate tactical plan. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that he has plenty of handy, experienced footballers in reserve.
Up front, there’s a potential strike trio of Jermain Lens, Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham - who cost over £25million combined - while in a slightly deeper role Allardyce could field Ola Toivonen, a curious half-midfielder, half-forward who never looks entirely settled in either role.
Allardyce also has decent options in midfield, with 2013 FA Cup winner Jordi Gomez potentially featuring, but in defence things are less promising. Highly reluctant to field fatigued veteran centre backs, Allardyce could be forced to deploy relative unknowns.
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