Arsenal returns to action against Sunderland on Wednesday, with both teams needing one point to secure their immediate objectives. For Arsenal, a draw would be enough to guarantee a third-place league finish and a straight path into next year's Champions League group stage; Sunderland can make sure it stays in the Premier League for the 2015-16 season by not losing at the Emirates.
For that reason, Black Cats
manager Dick Advocaat is likely to place the priority on defense. This
approach has produced clean sheets against Leicester City and Everton in
Sunderland's last two matches.
The performance against Everton at
Goodison Park will serve as Advocaat's blueprint. Sunderland
relinquished possession to Everton, contenting itself with 30 percent,
and completed just 146 passes to Everton's 511 (Stats from OptaSports
The Black Cats camped in their own half and profited from two fortunate
second-half goals from Danny Graham and Jermaine Defoe.
will be encouraged by this success--and the manner of it--as they face
Arsenal on Wednesday. That's only nine days after Swansea used a
determined defense and opportunistic offense to hold the Gunners
scoreless in a 1-0 win in London. And it's only three days after Arsenal
failed to register a first-half shot against Manchester United, another
sign that its offense is not humming.
Getting his attacking
players to rediscover some of their verve will be a priority for Arsenal
manager Arsène Wenger. Not only will he want a strong finish to the
league campaign to set the tone for next season's preparations; he'll
know from his five previous FA Cup triumphs how difficult it is for a
team to regain its energy and goal-scoring form for final crucible.
Arsenal can also send Aston Villa, its final opponent, a strong message
about the risks of a deep defensive approach.
For those reasons,
we shouldn't expect Arsenal to play for a gentlemanly draw. The Gunners
can prove both a specific point--that they're ready to defend their FA
Cup title--and a general one--that they're capable of breaking through a
Which players will Wenger select to make these points?
thinking here is that he'll change the lineup a bit. After sending out
the identical starting XI for six straight league matches, after
witnessing that group's collective effectiveness wane in its last two
outings, and after seeing fatigue hamper some of the individuals just
three days before, the manager will likely employ some different
starters on Wednesday.
Midfielder Jack Wilshere is a prime
candidate. The Englishman helped assert Arsenal's control over the
midfield when he entered the game against Manchester United. This
followed energetic substitute performances against Swansea and Hull. He
could replace Santi Cazorla in the heart of the midfield or take one of
the interchanging roles in attacking midfield.
If Wenger suspects
Sunderland won't attack at all, he could use Aaron Ramsey and Wilshere
in the heart of midfield, as he did late against Swansea and Manchester
United. He'd thus open a forward spot for Theo Walcott or Danny Welbeck,
if the latter is fit. This would be a bold move for a side needing only
a draw to nail down a third-place league finish.
Wenger will keep Francis Coquelin at the base of the midfield and use
substitutes to change the dynamic if Sunderland's approach keeps Arsenal
There's depth elsewhere that could be brought to bear,
such as Gabriel, who will replace the ill Laurent Koscielny at center
back. Kieran Gibbs at left back and Tomas Rosicky in any number of
positions could also see action, but one lesson of the FA Cup semifinal
against Reading is that significant changes risk stalling the offense as
much as lineup uniformity does. That's why we expect no more than three
changes on Wednesday.
With this scope of rotation, Arsenal should
be in position to continue its dominance of the Premier League's bottom
10 teams. In 18 matches against the current bottom half, the Gunners
have won 16 and drawn two.