Arsene Wenger has a problem. In this instance, I’m not talking about the four-point gap his Arsenal side have to make up to Tottenham Hotspur in the race for fourth place, and I’m not even on about that terrible full-length coat that he insists on wearing (honestly, Arsene, you’re French, where is your sense of style?)
No, Wenger needs to sort out his team’s first-half performances, because unless something changes, slow starts are going to cost Arsenal a Champions League berth next season.
With the campaign nearly two-thirds gone, any trend that has lasted this long is one that is seemingly stuck, whether it be good or bad, and too often this term Arsenal have taken too long to get going.
Theo Walcott admitted in the week that it is a growing concern and it needs sorting out as soon as possible.
Arsenal have only been winning at half-time in five of their 25 Premier League games – an incredibly poor stat for a team with such grand aspirations.
Only Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and QPR have been winning after 45 minutes less often, and it is a malaise which cannot realistically continue.
Luckily, their second-half statistics – no side has won more second-half points than the Gunners – goes some way to redressing the balance, but the figures need to be reversed if Arsenal are to be playing in Europe’s top tournament next year.
But I don’t see it happening when the Gunners go to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland on Saturday.
Wenger’s side could well end up winning – they are 17/20 to do so (the draw is 13/5 and Sunderland are 3/1) – but I see another drawn first half for Arsenal, which has been the case in 14 – 14! – of their league matches this season, a record only QPR and Swansea can beat.
And in fact, the 2/1 that it is 0-0 at half-time on Wearside jumps out at me rather strongly.
I won’t go over my aversion to backing Arsenal at odds-on again, but needless to say, just 11 wins in 25 matches – and four in 12 away fixtures – means that betting on Arsenal at short odds should always come with caution.
The same applies to Sunderland, too, who have won just seven games all year, and only four at home.
A lack of firepower has undermined the Black Cats, as even with Steven Fletcher’s goals they have netted just 28 times, and although Danny Graham looks like a sensible purchase, how he will fit in alongside Fletcher remains to be seen, with Martin O’Neill preferring to go with just one up front.
So as well as Arsenal not leading at half-time, I am banking on another trend that seems set in stone – a lack of goals at the Stadium of Light, where there have been just 26 goals in 12 matches, fewer than any other Premier League ground this season.
Just ten of those have come in the first half of games and in five of those fixtures, Sunderland have gone into the break goalless.
And it’s not like there are many goals when Arsenal hit the road these days, either: the Gunners’ away fixtures have seen just 27 goals, the third lowest in the division, and if you take away the seven scored in the Reading fixture, there have been just 20 goals scored in 11 games.
On four occasions they have gone into half-time at 0-0, and with just one first-half goal in their last five matches, the 2/1 on a goalless opening 45 minutes at Sunderland looks ever bigger.
And that is before you look at the recent head-to-head record, which shows that there are never many goals when these two sides meet.
The last ten league meetings have produced just 14 goals, including five games which saw one goal or fewer, and given the respective home and away goalscoring records and Arsenal’s first-half struggles, I envisage another low-scoring encounter.
With four goals in his last five games, in-form Walcott might fire Arsenal to victory eventually – draw/Arsenal is 17/4 – but after a gruelling international week for many of the players, this one could take a while to get going and the 2/1 on a goalless first half looks like a good bet to me.