Follow the Ball – Game 2: Arsenal vs Sunderland

I am not a very exciting football watcher. Outside of doing research for the #IBWM100 and the players that we chart over 12 months, I tend to stick to what I know. In 2016, my aim is to change that by following a winning team over the course of the next 12 months and seeing where I end up.

It started last week with the Premier League and if things go as I hope, I should be in for a European tour over the next 12 months (and perhaps even further afield if the action can find its way to the FIFA Club World Cup). For now, back to North London…

Game 1: Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle United
Barclays Premier League, Saturday 2nd January 2016, Emirates Stadium

The opening game of Follow the Ball finished with a victory for Arsenal; although it wasn’t as convincing as it probably should have been. As such – we move on to Game 2 and another team from the North East of England…

Game 2: Arsenal (c) vs Sunderland
The Emirates FA Cup, Saturday 9th January 2016, Emirates Stadium

The Skinny: It’s the FA Cup so neither team are going to be at full strength. As such, the form book goes completely out the window – it’ll be squad players against squad players and after that, it’s going to be tricky how it ends up. Arsenal, thanks to their superior squad and decent record in the FA Cup of late, will be considered favourites and I’ll be surprised if they aren’t the name in the Fourth Round pot.

Sam Allardyce has shown nothing but disdain for the competition in the last few years. During his time with West Ham, he elect to focus much of his attention on their success in the Premier League and fielded incredibly weak sides in the world’s oldest domestic cup competition. With Sunderland four points from safety in the top flight, I doubt he will suddenly change his tune and fancy a long cup run. Some first team players on their way back from injury will be the best any Sunderland fans making the long trip down can hope to see; especially with an away trip to Swansea (currently 17th) coming up on Tuesday.

Any team that Arsenal put out should be too strong for a weakened Sunderland XI; even if Mesut Özil won’t be playing.

The Match: Both managers surprised me with their team selections. There were more first team players involved than I expected, and as a manner to introduce fringe players to the first team and hope that they can propser it makes much more sense that simply choosing 11 players completely alien to the first team.

As an aside, I completely understand the circumstances that lead to Jürgen Klopp fielding the team that he did on Friday night.

Thanks to the encouraging team selections, the match wasn’t as stop-start as I feared it might. Arsenal were allowed to dominate possession by a Sunderland side that tried to retain their shape and then hit their hosts on the break. Sam Allardyce started four attacking minded players – Jeremain Lens, Steven Fletcher, Danny Graham and Duncan Watmore – and on the occasions that the Black Cats got forward, it felt like there was a front line of four ready to get in behind the Arsenal. Lens scored the opener, harrying Laurent Koscielny into a mistake and then finishing well.

Arsenal didn’t panic and were allowed to play their way into the match by the compact opposition. Alex Iwobi – anchoring the midfield alongside Calum Chambers – had an impressive afternoon before being replaced by Aaron Ramsey. He was neat and tidy on the ball, slipped a couple of delicate passes into feet, seemed happy to take on defenders and generally looked comfortable in his role. It’s only one game and I don’t remember him being as accomplished in October when he made his debut against Sheffield Wednesday but it was fairly promising.

When they had possession, Arsenal always looked like they had time on the ball. Sunderland worked hard, closed space between the lines and tried to frustrate Arsenal but it didn’t appear to ruffle their feathers too much. Of course as Johan Cruyff once said, “playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is” so perhaps Arsenal were working harder than I could see.

The Gunners took their time to find their rhythm and pass through the holes. All three of Arsenal’s goals were lovely passing moves and it would be unfair to have expected Jordan Pickford to have stopped any of them.

There probably isn’t more that Sunderland could have been expected to do. Had they been more attacking, Arsenal probably would have broken through earlier in the second half and racked up four or five goals. At 1-1 Steve Fletcher hit the crossbar after a delightful piece of skill from DeAndre Yedlin had made Theo Walcott look silly. The rebound fell to Duncan Watmore and he skied his shot. Perhaps if either gone in, they may well have found a way into the Fourth Round but it wasn’t to.

Their rearguard action was breached in the 72nd minute by Ramsey’s smart run to finish off a typically-Arsenal move, before Giroud killed the tie with the third goal.

The Result: Arsenal 3-1 Sunderland

A defeat for Sunderland isn’t a bad thing given their relegation worries. There is no shame in losing to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.

Arsenal cruise into the Fourth Round draw and continue Arsene Wenger’s record of never losing a FA Cup Third Round tie. The Frenchman hasn’t seen his side lose any match in the FA Cup since February 2013 so he seems to have figured out to perfect way rotate his squad and still remain competitive.

What’s next? Liverpool vs Arsenal in the Premier League

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