Arsenal 2-0 Sunderland – an ambitious approach from Steve Bruce that almost came off

February 21, 2010

An interesting match-up today at the Emirates. Arsenal continue to deploy Cesc Fabregas in a very advanced role behind the frontman, with the wingers slightly deeper than they played in the clear 4-3-3 shape at the start of the campaign. Sunderland came with an extremely adventurous 4-3-3 shape, with three genuine strikers, and with a centre-half, Anton Ferdinand, in front of the back four.

Despite losing the game, I think Steve Bruce can consider this experiment a moderate success. The last thing you should do when your side is on such a poor run of form is to send them out playing a cagey, defensive game. By fielding such an attacking line-up, Sunderland didn’t seem as lacking in confidence as they have in recent weeks, and they did create enough chances to score at least one goal.

The fact there were two pacey strikers on the flanks worried Arsenal’s full-backs defensively, and meant that the Arsenal centre-backs were constantly concerned about covering their respective full-backs. The Arsenal backline was stretched, and this resulted in both Kenwyne Jones and Darren Bent getting between defenders to get one-on-ones with Manuel Almunia, but neither chance was taken.

The problem with Sunderland’s approach was that it meant Bent and Frazier Campbell both had a lot of defensive work to do when the Arsenal full-backs advanced. Bent spent most of the game operating defensively as Eboue looked to get forward, whilst Clichy was more conservative and Campbell was generally within a decent distance of Jones.

Arsenal’s attacks almost always came down their right-hand side, and Theo Walcott’s pace took him past George McCartney constantly, to the point where Bruce actually swapped the full-back with Anton Ferdinand towards the end of the first half because it was becoming embarrassing how easily Walcott was breaking past his man.

Indeed, both goals came down the Arsenal right, and both were the fault of the wide strikers being forced to defend. The first goal was created by an Eboue burst forward – Bent tried to track him, but showed him inside and then eventually dropped so deep that he played the goalscorer, Nicklas Bentdner, onside. The second goal came in injury time, as Campbell (now on the right) clumsily fouled Fabregas, who scored from the penalty spot.

Perhaps the solution would have been for Bruce to play roughly the same shape, but with one more defensive-minded wide player. Darren Bent would have got through less defensive work if he had been deployed on the right (and indeed, might have caused Gael Clichy yet more problems) but on the left, where McCartney needed assistance and Eboue was looking to advance, Boudewijn Zenden might have been a more useful option. He would have covered his full-back more effectively, whilst also looking to get crosses into the box.

It’s easy to be wise in hindsight, but the problems on Sunderland’s left were apparent after 15 minutes. Had Bruce had the bravery to switch things round (taken off Campbell, shifted Bent to the right, put on Zenden) things might have been different.

That said, Sunderland were in the game until the final whistle and created numerous chances. Bruce’s unusual formation was entirely correct, but his team selection could have done with a ‘defensive’ winger in place of a striker.

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