Before every Arsenal fixture, we’ll bring you a Scouting Report on the Gunners’ next opponents. Arsène Wenger's side take on Sunderland on Saturday, so to find out more we asked tactical expert Michael Cox and local journalist Chris Young for their views.
Arsenal kicked off their 2012/13 campaign with a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland, but Saturday’s opponents are a significantly different side six months later.
They will be more positive than at the Emirates, where they recorded just 30 per cent of possession, and only two shots on target.
The shape of Martin O’Neill’s side will be determined by two key selection decisions. First, one striker or two?
"Arsenal must also be wary of allowing Sunderland to shoot from range - Larsson, Vaughan, Johnson and right-back Craig Gardner are all capable of fine long-distance strikes"
For the majority of this campaign, Steven Fletcher has played up front alone, supported primarily by Stephane Sessegnon, a powerful dribbler, in a 4-4-1-1 system. The Benin international hasn’t been in great form, however, and has registered just two goals from 24 starts. Fletcher needs more support in terms of goalscoring.
The January signing of Danny Graham from Swansea provides O’Neill with a reliable second striker. O’Neill has often favoured two up front throughout this managerial career, and his long-term intention is surely to pair Graham and Fletcher.
Graham replaced Sessegnon in last weekend’s 2-1 defeat at Swansea, making the 4-4-1-1 a 4-4-2 - and O’Neill may debut that system this weekend.
Second, one winger or two? O’Neill started the campaign with the speedy duo of Adam Johnson and James McClean on either flank, but has turned to ex-Arsenal midfielder Sebastian Larsson in recent weeks, using him on the right, with Johnson on the left, where he goes down the line and crosses, rather than darting inside to shoot.
Larsson lacks McClean’s pace and dribbling ability but is an excellent crosser from the right, and with Graham providing a second aerial target, expect Larsson to begin the game, whipping the ball into the box readily.
Elsewhere, new signing Alfred NDiaye is a powerful presence alongside the calm David Vaughan - although Larsson could play in the centre, and feisty tackler Lee Cattermole might be available again after a knee problem.
The central midfielders spread the play wide as Sunderland focus on attacking down the flanks, and in the 2-0 FA Cup win over Arsenal last season, Sunderland’s pressing when Arsenal played a forward pass into the midfield zone was excellent.
Arsenal must also be wary of allowing Sunderland to shoot from range - Larsson, Vaughan, Johnson and right-back Craig Gardner are all capable of fine long-distance strikes.
That also makes the Black Cats a threat from set-pieces and, as the second most-fouled side in the Premier League, behind Everton, they’re also clever at creating these situations.
CHRIS YOUNG, SUNDERLAND ECHO
At the start of December, things were starting to look a little bit dicey. Sunderland dropped into the relegation zone for the first time this season but they won their game in hand against Reading and that gave them a bit of a lift off. They won five out of eight games and then drew with Swansea. They lost their last match, away at Reading, which was disappointing, but they are in a much stronger position now than they were a couple of months ago.
"Sunderland have a decent recent record against Arsenal. They beat them in the fifth round of the FA Cup last season, and got a draw at the Emirates on the opening day of this campaign"
Martin O’Neill was wary of getting someone else in to support Steven Fletcher and has signed Danny Graham. The big question at the moment is if the two of them can play together. O’Neill has suggested that Fletcher could drop into the No 10 role and play alongside Graham. Time will tell if that happens though.
Sunderland have a decent recent record against Arsenal. They beat them in the fifth round of the FA Cup last season, and got a draw at the Emirates on the opening day of this campaign.
It will be Graham’s first game at the Stadium of Light, which will create a bit of a buzz, but Sunderland have been very inconsistent of late. They aren’t blessed with pace at centre half, so if Theo Walcott starts through the middle, that could be a key area. If he plays on the right, he’ll probably be up against Danny Rose, who is no slouch.
Sunderland are hard to predict but I’ll go for a 1-1 draw.
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