Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v Sunderland: Points All Around

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 via The Black Cats camped in their own half and profited from two fortunate second-half goals from Danny Graham and Jermaine Defoe.

Sunderland 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 determined defense.

Which players will Wenger select to make these points?

The 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.

More likely, Wenger will keep Francis Coquelin at the base of the midfield and use substitutes to change the dynamic if Sunderland's approach keeps Arsenal in check.

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.

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