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Sunderland's second meeting with Arsenal in consecutive Saturdays drew a very different result from last week's dour affair. Where the Gunners triumphed in the league via a late Thierry Henry winner, this time it was the Black Cats who went home happy - securing a comfortable 2-0 win. After an initial good spell from the visitors, Sunderland's bustling and mean-spirited defensive approach ensured their opponents would garner barely a sniff from thereon in, and the home side marched on to the FA Cup quarter-finals with relative ease.
In a move that surprised a few prior to kick-off, Martin O'Neill opted to leave Fraizer Campbell out of his starting line-up. In his place came returning captain Lee Cattermole, assigned a deeper role than fellow central midfielders Jack Colback and Craig Gardner. What followed, then, was a 4-5-1 formation designed to stop Arsenal playing - the same set-up lost 1-2 last week, but this time the change in personnel made all the difference (as does, it has to be said, a team that was visibly less tired than last weekend).
As a result Seb Larsson moved back out into his more familiar position on the right wing, where he had an altogether greater impact than in his central role last week. James McClean continued on the left, with this midfield five again falling in behind lone striker Stephane Sessegnon. At the back the Black Cats were unchanged, Simon Mignolet's goal being guarded by a defensive four of Bardsley, O'Shea, Turner and Richardson.
In the away dugout, Arsene Wenger again went for an adventurous approach, mirroring last week's 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. There were changes in the line-up here too, however. Per Mertesacker, injured last week, was unavailable for selection, leaving Thomas Vermaelen to slot in at his preferred centre-back role, and allowing Francis Coquelin to join the side at left-back. Coquelin's own injury just ten minutes in prompted another reshuffle; Vermaelen ventured back to the left, with Sébastien Squillaci joined Johan Djourou - himself in the side in place of Laurent Koscielny - in the middle.
Further forward, Alex Song and Mikel Arteta retained their roles as deep-lying central midfielders, but this time Tomas Rosicky made way in the advanced midfield role for last week's equalising goal scorer Aaron Ramsey. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain retained his place as a wide frontman, but Theo Walcott dropped out on the opposite wing with Gervinho, fresh on the back of last week's African Cup of Nations defeat with the Ivory Coast, starting in his place. Robin van Persie, kept so quiet last week by Michael Turner and John O'Shea, led the line once again - if anything, he fared even worse this time around.
Returning Captain Changes Sunderland Outlook
Last week, this column criticised Martin O'Neill for his decision to revert to a 4-5-1 formation. It was deemed to be excessively negative against an Arsenal side lacking in belief, and seen as stifling Sunderland's attacking options. Defensively it served a good purpose - and for the most part worked brilliantly - but it was still felt that a more adventurous attacking approach would have garnered three points for the Black Cats.
This week, despite O'Neill's decision to stick with the formation, there can be no such complaints. This lies in part because, despite how, on the surface, the team's set-up looked akin to last week's, there were some subtle yet instrumental differences.
Firstly, as already alluded to, the change in personnel made the Black Cats a much more different animal. Last week, by design or otherwise, it was Craig Gardner who most often found himself as Sunderland's least advanced midfielder. Fraizer Campbell was left neglected on the right wing, and the central midfield struggled to create much of worth - that responsibility was instead heaped on the shoulders of James McClean.
This time around, the introduction of Cattermole gave the home side a far clearer structure. Cattermole was superb upon his return. The improvement in his discipline since Martin O'Neill joined the club has been remarkable, and was there for all to see against the Gunners. Tasked with nullifying Aaron Ramsey (and, though to a lesser extent, preventing passes reaching Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho), the ex-Middlesbrough man proved up to the task - Ramsey was replaced not long after the break. His performance was a masterclass in patience - he allowed his opponents to advance up to a certain point, before hassling and harrying them back into their own half. Resembling a well-trained pitbull, the Sunderland captain was superb, and deserves the plaudits he now sees coming his way.
That personnel change saw another important offshoot. Fraizer Campbell was ineffectual last week. This time around, Seb Larsson offered Sunderland far greater options. Defensively he combined well with Phil Bardsley, while going forward he stayed wide, allowing the Gunners to be stretch. As commented last week by this column, Thomas Vermaelen's inadequacies at left-back really should have been targeted. This time around they were, with Larsson driving to the line when given the chance, and generally giving the Belgian a torrid day at the office.
O'Neills 4-5-1 on Saturday was also a very different beast from the one a week previously. Sunderland again allowed their opponents plenty of the ball, but this time they were more tenacious in their efforts when seeking to regain possession, and their attacks offered much more in the way of fluidity. In essence, when attacking on Saturday, Sunderland's 4-5-1 actually turned into a 4-2-4; it was a far more adventurous line-up than last week's rigidity.
Sessegnon, last week isolated, was this week supplemented by both his wide men and the onrushing Gardner. Gardner, despite being faced with two defensive midfielders in the forms of Song and Arteta, still managed to get in behind them when the Black Cats broke at speed. These aspects, coupled with James McClean's tormenting of Bacary Sagna, meant that it was Sunderland who looked more threatening when breaking forward on the counter - as reflected in their second goal.
Here, Stephane Sessegnon ran at length with the ball, before playing in the onrushing Seb Larsson. The Swede's effort rebounded off the near post but soon ran into the path of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was unable to stop the ball ricocheting off him and into the net. It was fortuitous, but it was a microcosm of the game as a whole. Sunderland waited patiently before seeking to nick the ball, before attacking at speed and in numbers. That Oxlade-Chamberlain felt the need to help out defensively was a sign of the threat Sunderland posed when attacking on Saturday.
Does Passion Matter?
With this being a tactical column, it is very sparingly that we reference those attributes that cannot be scientifically measured but perhaps have a bearing on the outcome of football games - things such as passion and desire.
However, it would be wrong not to do regarding Saturday evening's cup tie. The low crowd at the Stadium of Light may have been disappointed, but the atmosphere generated by the 26,000 in attendance was an excellent tool for the home side to equalise.
At times it must have felt to Arsenal that the whole world was against them. Sunderland's tormenting approach to defending was buoyed by the roaring hordes - the Gunners couldn't cope, and turned to complaining to the referee as their last resort. The passion on the pitch, too, was there to see. The visitors, tired and depleted, looked war-weary from the off, not wanting to "mix it" with the red and whites. On the contrary, the home side, led by Cattermole, fought for every second ball, were hard (but fair) in the tackle, and generally wanted it more.
Despite their lack of a tactical aspect, such factors as confidence and belief should never be downplayed in the world of professional football. Martin O'Neill's arrival has seen the influx of both, and his team seems to be growing with each passing game.
This was a comfortable win for Sunderland. Arsenal started the brighter but soon faded - Robin van Persie was a mere spectator up front, once again marked out of the game by O'Shea and Turner. The Gunners offered little in the way of incisiveness, and their frustrations were evident both on the pitch and in the dugout.
The home side, contrastingly, were excellent. Bardsley and Richardson, primarily defenders, were recalcitrant in allowing their opposite numbers to get to the byline, while Simon Mignolet performed ably on the one real occasion he was called into action (Gervinho's first half effort). The midfield looked a much more solid unit than last week, as each player fitted better into the role assigned to him. Furthermore, Stephane Sessegnon was not left to forage unconvincingly via long balls forward - the Black Cats ensured their frontman received the ball at his feet much more often this time around, and were the better for it.
Sunderland actually managed just two shots on target - but that is not to say they didn't look dangerous. Several crosses flashed across the visiting penalty box and, not for the first time, O'Neill's men were prolific when the right opportunities arose (though luck did play a factor in the second goal). Arsenal, conversely, were wasteful.
Arsenal were visibly tired, while Sunderland had the benefit of a week's rest, but there should be nothing taken away from Martin O'Neill's side. This was another assured performance in which victory scarcely looked in doubt.
Sunderland now travel to West Brom next week, where it will be interesting to see how they line-up. O'Neill's version of 4-5-1 has been proven to be successful against supposedly better sides; it works excellently when Sunderland cede possession. However, it is not clear that it is a formation that accurately maps onto a side that enjoys a wealth of possession. This could well be the case next week, so it shall be interesting to see what the manager does to cater for these. Whatever it is, Sunderland fans will be hoping his midas touch continues.
NB. We apologise for the lack of graphics and statistics in this week's Talking Tactics (we know how much you like them). Unfortunately, for whatever reason, our usual sources of information don't offer such in-depth information on FA Cup games as they do Premier League ones.