The first half against Sunderland may have been frustrating to the extreme, it was also comforting because it was a typically-Arsenal performance. Arsenal were brilliant in the first half; they created several glorious chances, and but for some shoddy finishing and some brilliant goalkeeper from Simon Mignonlet, they could've had a comfortable lead at half-time, which would've made the second half much more comfortable, even if one assumes Carl Jenkinson would've still been sent off. In the first meeting between the two sides, Arsenal only had 3 shots on target as they struggled to create chances against a deep-lying Sunderland side. With Sunderland expected to play in a similar war, Arsene Wenger loaded his side with creative players, with Aaron Ramsey coming in alongside Mikel Arteta deep in the midfield, and Santi Cazorla playing nominally on the left side, with Jack Wilshere playing behind Olivier Giroud.
Like in August, Arsenal didn't attack with much width, especially on the right hand side. Carl Jenkinson was very cautious in his return to the right hand side, and while Bacary Sagna's crossing leaves a lot to be desired, he always comes forward in support of Theo Walcott. With Walcott's goal-scoring form meaning he's playing a lot more centrally, the right fullback has to come forward, which is one reason Sagna has struggled. Jenkinson didn't on Saturday, and neither did Nacho Monreal initially, though he pushed forward as the half wore-on. This can sometimes be a problem for Arsenal, and one imagines that had it continued, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski may have been introduced to offer more width. They weren't required, though, because Arsenal did get the goal that they needed, and it came straight through Sunderland's middle. With Jack Wilshere's driving runs and quick, one-touch passes combining with Santi Cazorla's twists, turns and sneaky passing, Arsenal had no problem creating chances in the first half. Aaron Ramsey provided driving runs from deep, and combined nicely with Cazorla and Wilshere.
It was the speed of passing and movement that made Arsenal's football outstanding, though. It's a kind of tempo that has rarely been seen in the first half of Arsenal matches, but the inclusion of Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey made Arsenal play at a much higher tempo. They won the ball high up the pitch, as exemplified by the first goal, where Nacho Monreal, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey combined to win the ball off of Steven Fletcher, before feeding Jack Wilshere, who's dynamic run created the space for Theo Walcott to flick the ball for Santi Cazorla. It was Wengerball at it's best: quick ball movement, good tackling to win the ball back and a flurry of movement by the wide players, with both Walcott and Cazorla coming off of their wing.
Last season, the inclusion of Yossi Benayoun helped Arsenal find their style of football again, and putting one of Santi Cazorla or Jack Wilshere wide can do the same season this season. Cazorla can as easily play on the right or left as he can in the middle; he has done for Villarreal, Malaga and Spain. He isn't really a wide player, though; his passing was still in the same areas that it has been all season. That's why in most cases, attacking runs from the left back is extremely important, and as Monreal became more involved, Arsenal became more dangerous. In the second half, the slow return of Arsenal's style of play was extremely important in holding the ball and taking the sting out of Sunderland's high pressure. It also enabled Arsenal remained a threat on the break, and again, they should've put the game to bed with one of the four or five great chances they had in the second half. Still, with all the chances being missed, it reminded us of previous season's Arsenal, making Saturday a lot more comforting than any dug out 1-0 victory.