Sixer’s Soapbox: what have we learned from the Arsenal game Martin?

Jake's work in progress
Jake’s work in progress
Peter Sixsmith was down at Brantham watching Shildon progress to the next round of the FA Vase so it was left to Deputy Editor Malcolm Dawson to get off the subs’ bench and climb on the soapbox to present his View from the North West Corner.


They say that by the age of five an average English speaking child will have a vocabulary of around 1,800 words.

The bloke who sits near me at the Stadium of Light gets by with approximately eight, although to be fair he can make nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs and expletives from the same root word and in his capacity of chief moaner is doing a great job training up his young apprentice. It takes an outstanding effort from the team to shut him up but even then, in his eyes, the players rarely get it right. Sometimes this makes watching the game difficult, especially when he’s not far wrong!

Last Monday, Pete Sixsmith and I went to the Sage at Gateshead to watch a live performance of “The Transatlantic Sessions”, an eclectic mix of traditional musicians from all parts of the British Isles and North America. They bring their various talents together in musical arrangements that cross the various genres so that some Cajun accordion playing will blend with Uilleann pipes and the poems of Rabbie Burns, sung by a young woman from Dumfries and Galloway, will be accompanied with steel guitar and Kentucky style banjo. You always know what you are getting and you aren’t constantly disturbed by people getting up five minutes before the interval and the encore.

You can’t say the same about watching Sunderland. They too have an eclectic mix of performers who can gel and produce the most entertaining and rhythmical football, but at other times the players seem to be on different pages, out of synch and unable to harmonise.

Off the subs' bench and onto the soapbox
Off the subs’ bench and onto the soapbox

It isn’t easy to predict which team will turn up although history seems to have started repeating itself far too frequently. A criticism of mine for all of this season and some of the last one too, revolves around the tactic of playing deep right from the off, soaking up pressure and waiting to break down the opposition defence. Add to that the lack of movement off the ball, a lack of penetration in attack and a preponderance of sideways and backward passes and I can almost see what the bloke near me is on about. But then there are times when the side shows aggressive, attacking intent, a commitment to hard work and individual flair and at those times we are a match for any side.

Today was a case in point. For much of the season the manager’s choices have been restricted by injuries to key players. Danny Rose’s inclusion should have been a reason for optimism because apart from Simon Mignolet and Stephen Fletcher he has been head and shoulders above the rest. But instead of bringing a smile to my face it produced a sigh when I realised that this would mean Jack Colback moving back to midfield, paired with a returning Lee Cattermole and the as yet unproven Alfred N’Diaye. I envisaged the tried and tested tactic of stifling the Arsenal midfield to make the defence difficult to break down, as the more forward thinking pairing of Vaughan and Larsson were relegated to the bench. Recently Colback has shown a desire to get forward from the fullback position but when he’s in midfield his orders seem to be to keep possession at any cost and play according to the Ray Wilkins’ Book of Midfield Passing Options

Monsieur Salut, by Matt
Monsieur Salut, by Matt
See also: ‘Sunderland meet Arsenal flair with heart and soul, but no goal’ – ‘ Monsieur Salut’s immediate post-match thoughts at ESPN:

There are those who argue that if we start off with a more creative midfield and attacking intent we’ll find ourselves out of the game before half time. It’s a theory but personally I feel it better to keep the opposition out of our half as much as possible and that we will be more likely to get something from the game if we create chances rather than never threatening the opposition’s goal.

In the opening minutes however, I thought that maybe my prayers had been answered as Gardner and N’Diaye linked up for the first opportunity to put the ball in the back of the net. But it didn’t take long for the visitors to take control. They passed the ball much more fluently and players moved into space so that the man in possession had options, allowing them to develop the play quickly and create goal scoring chances. Once again our keeper showed that he is worth two or three goals a game to the team, bringing off a couple of excellent saves early on and another just before the interval. The first after 82 seconds was an instant after Lee Cattermole’s clumsy mistimed tackle on Jack Wilshire which earned him an early card in less than the time it takes to get a Big Mac at a drive through. No surprise there then! Not long after Wilshire took another clattering from Bramble although from my seat it looked like a good old fashioned tackle which won the ball. But after Wilshire’s long layoff I can understand Wenger’s apprehension whenever he is challenged firmly.

As they settled into the game Arsenal moved the ball about at will, putting it into spaces for others to run onto with Walcott showing why he has been held in high esteem for a number of years now. Bramble was having another solid game in the heart of defence, though his hoofs upfield, whilst clearing immediate dangers, inevitably conceded possession. On one of our forays forward the young fullback Jenkinson made the first of two mistimed tackles when he upended Colback and got a yellow card for his rashness. It would have an effect on the latter stages of the game although ultimately didn’t affect the result.

Maybe it’s the “bloke behind me” but I’m going to turn a positive into a negative. One of the strengths of Sess, AJ, Danny Rose and Fletcher is their ability to keep the ball and beat players in mazy little dribbles. But (and here’s the negative) this is because when they get the ball to feet no-one is moving into a space where they can deliver a defence splitting pass. They get the ball, they twist and turn but without support end up in blind alleys and either end up losing the thing or going backwards. With only one up front we never seem to have enough of an attacking threat, especially when Norman Stanley is drifting out wide.

Jake's take on Fletch
Jake’s take on Fletch

Eventually Arsenal’s movement and positive approach brought them their goal with Wilshire and Walcott involved before Santi Corzola drilled the ball through a crowd and past Mignolet. The Londoners deserved their halftime lead and my half time 7 stored in drafts read “Pedestrian Sunderland outrun by slick moving Arsenal.”

The second half, like the first, began brightly. Sess got into the Gunners’ penalty area and looked to have a goal scoring opportunity before going to ground. A penalty could easily have been given but I would have been annoyed had a similar one gone against us. To my eyes Sess is trying too hard to win free kicks and penalties. He must listen to Alan Hanson every week but I’d much rather he stayed upright.

Both sides were now creating chances and in fact Fletcher had a goal disallowed but as he was clearly offside no complaints. After 62 minutes there was the potentially game changing sending off when Jenkinson again mistimed a tackle, this time bringing down Sessegnon and the inevitable second yellow followed.

Despite this Arsenal still pushed forward whenever they could and several shots were just off target, including one from Walcott which hit the base of the post. But now at last Sunderland were also pressing and Szczensy impressed as much as Mignolet had done. The introduction of Graham for N’Diaye who despite his promise had a quiet game was the second potentially game changing event. Once we had two up front, we seemed to exert much more pressure on the Arsenal goal and were unlucky not to get an equaliser but a game is played over 90 minutes, not 45 and it frustrates me that time and again this season we only seem to threaten after we are behind.

Can we afford to start with two up front? Most of us have an opinion. Martin O’Neill’s is the one that counts but I’d love to see Fletch and Graham start a match. They certainly look as if they can gel and after a run of defeats it may well be time to try something new. Also Martin, when you read this, try playing Colback behind a fit Danny Rose down the left. No game next week so you’ve plenty of time to try things out on the training ground.

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23 thoughts on “Sixer’s Soapbox: what have we learned from the Arsenal game Martin?”

  1. In the 60s when the weather at Cleadon was too crap to allow the likes of Cloughie and Amby Fogarty to train, the lads used to decamp to the beach at Roker. I used to jump on my trusty pushbike and pedal like hell, lest the session be over and I missed out on my autographs. Now it’s Dubai for “warm weather training”. How times have changed.

  2. According to today’s (12th Feb) Journal and Northern Echo MON is using the trip to Dubai to work on the Graham/Fletcher partnership and has hinted he will use them together. When Danny Rose then swaps positions with Colback that’ll confirm the manager reads Salut!Sunderland.

  3. Sess on the wing does not work! Offensively it makes our central area immobile and too slow to support Fletcher, and defensively it pulls every other midfielder out of position as they cover the gaps left by him; and yesterday that allowed Arsenal to do whatever they wanted in the space they were afforded. We were chasing shadows in the first 45 minutes and it wasn’t pleasant to watch.
    Not sure what Larsson’s done to be dropped, neither am I sure why a young player with no goal-scoring record appears to have been charged with the role of getting forward, I thought N’diaye looked lost at times yesterday. Can we afford the time for him to get up to Premiership speed?
    Am I being negative? Possibly. I don’t deny the hard position MON finds himself in, but I still don’t understand his decision to change the formation and positions of a team that was just appearing to be picking up some good results.

    • I dunno, – I think he might work. He can go past people and got a player sent off. Where he’s really dangerous is when he cuts inside.
      So, I think he’s OK out there. Might not be his 100% best position, but he’s not wasted out there IMHO.

    • Problem with playing Sess on the wing is that he can’t cross, and rarely passes when he does cut inside. Maybe one day someone will lose their cool and kick him in the box (penalty box, not euphamism) and we’ll get a penalty. At the moment I’m struggling to see where he will contribute to the team effort, other than holding the ball up and thus killing time – that lovely first time pass to McClean against West Ham apart, of course.

  4. Imagine how better a side we would be with either Wilshere or Cazorla or Arteta in our midfield It puts it in perspective when you know Arsenal had all three.Very difficult to out -play such talent especially when there’s Walcott up front as well.To go 4-4-2 from the start would have been suicidal.I know Arsenal missed chances(mainly thanks to Mig) but overall i felt we deserved a point.

  5. “Pedestrian” was a good description of our first half performance while we watched a slick Arsenal pass the ball and threaten us with menace.Catts maybe should not have come back after such lengthy lay off against the very quick bunch of midfielders that Arsenal posses.He was rusty and it was not entirely unexpected that he was immediately booked.He spent the rest of the half struggling to get anywhere near up to speed.

    Wenger should have taken the fullback Jeckinson off at half time since he was Arsenal’s only weak spot and having been on a final warning he was ripe for running at to tempt a foul,which is exactly what we did.Otherwise it would have been a cruise for the Arsenal.

    Despite the defeat I felt a little uplifted by our efforts by the end,the end of the game was exciting as I have seen this season.Like the look of N’Diaye,Johnson needs to put a bit more effort in,as he hardly broke sweat(yet again),still unconvinced about Graham.

  6. I have had a go at cattermole previously on this site and had the reply delted, so rather than have a go I will just pooint out that of cattermoles 9 starts we have won 1, a win rate o 11%, without cattermole in the side our win rate is 42%, not a bad return really, I didnt understand yesterday why we played two midfielders who offers no goal threat, pass completion is very poor and are championship players at best when two international players are left on the bench.
    Come on O’neil wake up and see the stats for yourself.

  7. It’s a strange one, yesterday’s game. I’m one of the ‘ones’ who believe playing an attacking side – with our current playing staff – would leave us open to getting mauled in the middle of the park. It’s a little contradictory of some to lament the amount of clear cut chances Arsenal were afforded, only to then claim we should have played 442 and ‘went for it’. Playing two up front while chasing a game in the final twenty minutes is very different to starting a game against a classy side like Arsenal. Did people watch what happened to Reading when they tried to set up like that against them this season?

    That said, the trio of central midfielders MoN selected were a little defensive, even for him. The tactic only began to remotely work when Sess and AJ swapped wings, enabling them each to start coming inside. A 451/433 can only really work with those two playing on the flank where they have to come inside to get onto their strongest foot.

    Even I would have to admit that playing three central midfielders has to require someone like Gardner or Larsson’s being the most advanced of the three – if Sessegnon continues to be employed out wide that is. Never has a player in red and white been so hard to define as the wee Benin man.

    • But we set up to defend and still allow the opposition goalscoring opportunities. If we go behind we are then chasing the game. I understand what you say about the midfield being overrun but if our forwards and midfield are pushing up it a) means the opponents have to defend deeper and are denied time higher up the pitch and b) should we score then they have to try and force things stretching them further.

      Playing two proper strikers up front ties up two centre backs and requires a midfield player to drop back and support. This in turn takes pressure off our back line.

      We can all have opinions and no doubt certain tactics work better against certain teams. My biggest concern about starting games like we did yesterday is that there is little desire to break down the opposition. Players are static when they don’t have the ball. No-one is dragging defenders out of position to create spaces for others to run into. The midfield seem to have instructions to keep possession by playing square and backward passes and then when someone takes it down the wing there is rarely more than one in the box and the threat is easily dealt with. Colback is a case in point. Recently he has been charging forward looking for through balls and overlaps. Playing like he did yesterday, he gets to the halfway line and stops. He then plays a short pass inside or back to O’Shea.

      I haven’t done my coaching badges. I’m no expert. But I’d rather we tried to win three points than hold onto one. The games where we’ve done that this season we’ve looked a better side and been a better side to look at.

      We’ve got West Brom, Fulham, QPR and Norwich coming up. Surely these are opportunities to start with Fletch and Graham up front. If we do and don’t get results from the first couple then I’ll take it all back and admit I was wrong. But if the system stays the same and we don’t get results what then?

      Plus starting with a front two could also mean the Baggies are set up to deal with the 4-5-1 which could also give us an edge.

      • He will start to play them both, but it will be in the shape of a 4231 with SF behind DG. i just understand that Arsenal wasn’t the game to try it. It will be along soon, i’m sure.

  8. Negative, negative, negative! I wonder what you actually get from watching and writing about SAFC? Apart from two seasons under PR and 1973 (of course) this is the most successful side either if us has seen in our lifetime. Sad, yes but that is the history that MON is working against. However you and your likes are expecting him to come in with some kind of magic wand after RK and SB have squandered the family jewels. Get off MON’s back and start supporting the team lie a real fan would.

    • I wrote “They too (SAFC) have an eclectic mix of performers who can gel and produce the most entertaining and rhythmical football” and “there are times when the side shows aggressive, attacking intent, a commitment to hard work and individual flair and at those times we are a match for any side.”

      That is not negative in my view. I am not calling for O’Neill’s head and I’m not on his back. I’m not sure how you define success but I don’t think there is anything wrong either in wanting to see a more positive approach. I’m not paid thousands of pounds a week to coach or comment on a Premier League side but I can express an opinion as to how I think the team could progress. That’s not negative.

      Neither is wanting to be entertained. The last half an hour yesterday was certainly that and the positives came from the fact that we could have scored on more than one occasion. I didn’t labour the point as it was getting late but if the team played for the whole 90 minutes with the same purpose and movement as in the last thirty I feel we could get more points.

      Finally, am I really being negative asking for the team to be more positive or is an endorsement of the negative really a positive?

    • You are right of course and I have corrected the article. The only excuse I have is that it was half past midnight when I finally finished the piece! 🙁 I had even written “Wal – post” in my notes!

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