Saturday, October 4, 2008

Arsene Wenger Contributes to Arsenal's Poor Display at Sunderland.

Arsenal's slim title aspirations all but disappeared at the Stadium of Light this afternoon. After losing twice in the opening six games, Arsenal had placed un-wanted pressure on their young shoulders.

After grasping a draw from the jaws of defeat Arsenal come away from Sunderland with a point, but the ramifications of the result mean that to win the league the Gunners will have to go the rest of the season only dropping six points if they are to be realistic title challengers...

Having dropping eight points from the opening 21, it does not look like this could be the year for Arsenal to contest for the title.

Last weeks defeat at home to Hull left Arsene Wenger "physically sick", and it must have played on his thoughts all week as the potentially tough trip to Sunderland loomed. And his team selection showed that "The Professor" does get things wrong at times.

He started with a strangely set-up Arsenal side, which saw Robin van Persie playing out of position on the left hand side of midfield, Cesc Fabregas playing out of position just behind Adebayor, and Alexandre Song in central midfield on his first start of the season after recovering from injury.

Song was way out of depth during his time on the pitch and the only surprise was that he lasted until the 87th minute, when he was replaced by Mexican prodigy Carlos Vela.

Arsenal looked short on ideas right from kick-off, and with Fabregas operating much further forward than normal Arsenal were unable to dictate the flow of the game. Over the last few years Fabregas has progressed to become one of the best "natural" midfielders in the world, and the fact Wenger choose to play him out of position in a hostile environment is very surprising.

But credit to Sunderland, they had also lined out in a 4-5-1 formation. And Dwight Yorke expertly marked Fabregas out of the game. The 35-year-old seemed to relish marking one of the best players in the world and he put in a performance that belied his years.

His cause was helped by Fabregas playing in the "hole" and by the young Spaniard being restricted to the area of the pitch behind Adebayor. Had he played in his normal central midfield position it would be difficult to see Yorke being as influential.

Sunderland were very dogged and closed Arsenal down very quickly all over the pitch. This approach combined with Arsenal's unusual formation made it very difficult for Arsenal to get any flow to their play.

The first few chances fell to Sunderland as Arsenal seemed to lack concentration, with Walcott guilty on more than one occasion. The young England winger played a blind pass across his own box and Cisse was quick to capitalise on the mistake, only for Almunia to rush out very quickly and produce a fantastic block to deny the Frenchman.

Sunderland were getting plenty of men behind the ball and were frustrating Arsenal by closing them down, giving them no space to play. When they did gain possession they counter-attacked very quickly and Gael Clichy picked up a yellow card when he hampered Steed Malbranque in one of Sunderland's many forays up the pitch.

For all their possession, Arsenal actually created very little in terms of attacking play. Song went close with a header but Arsenal were reduced to long range shots as they found the Black Cats difficult to break down.

Arsenal's cause wasn't helped by van Persie playing on the left and he constantly found himself out of position when Arsenal were attacking, with no option to spread the play to the left due to his poor positioning Arsenal were forced inside and ran into a packed midfield more often than not.

At half-time Wenger was seething and his teamtalk to Walcott and van Persie seemed to have the desired effect as Walcott became more direct and Van Persie started to attack the penalty area. And they almost produced a goal as Walcott took on Collins for the first time, he skinned the defender and put in a great cross that found van Persie, and the Dutchman tucked it away with ease.

But the linesman had deemed that the ball had gone out of play when Walcott crossed it, and Sunderland were given a reprieve. In retrospect it looked like the wrong decision as the whole of the ball hadn't crossed the line, and Wenger looked unhappy after he had seen the replays.

The injustice did not make a difference to Arsenal and it didn't seem to register as they continued to play in the same fashion and right into Sunderlands hands.

The game continued in a tit-for-tat manner as Adebayor had a long range shot saved by Gordon and Richardson had a long range shot easily saved by Almunia. Sunderland seemed set up for the draw and they sucked Wenger's men in on almost every attack. By the late stages of the second half the game was almost completely played in the Sunderland half.

But the Black Cats looked comfortable and Arsenal didn't create much. Bentdner, who had replaced the ineffectual Walcott, produced the pass of the match when he found van Persie in space, but again Gordon denied Arsenal with a great save.

The game seemed destined for a draw when Grant Leadbitter produced a moment of magic. Leadbitter was being marked by van Persie, who let the Sunderland player run past him. As Leadbitter ran on to the ball he unleashed an unstoppable shot that crashed in off the underside of the bar on the near post. Almunia had no chance.

All of a sudden Arsenal had lost a game they had dominated without ever creating a clear-cut chance. They threw caution to the wind and started launching long balls into the box. And deep into injury time they got their reward.

The ball was cleared for a corner and from van Persie's corner an unmarked Fabregas headed home to give Arsenal a deserved draw. Pascal Chimbonda will feel Keane's wrath as he was supposed to mark Fabregas, but he found himself three yards the wrong side of Fabregas and never stood a chance when the young Spaniard made his run to connect with the ball.

Wenger summed up the match afterwards "Sunderland tried to defend for 90 minutes, it was attack versus defence in one half of the pitch and we were not sharp enough to make the difference."

In the Arsenal dressing room Wenger will put questions to his young team, some players will be able to answer Wenger's calling and some won't. And Wenger's side look desperately short of experience at the moment.

But the person with the most questions to answer will be Wenger himself. Why did he play two of his best players out of position? And why didn't he change the system when it obviously wasn't working?