After the on-pitch ecstasy of Chelsea and Basel, Sunday’s Lancashire struggle reminded us that the last 20 years have yielded plenty of frustration with joy.
That said, if you are going to be the footballing equivalent of the English Channel crashing against the white cliffs of Dover, creating sufficient erosion to fluke a winner in the 93rd minute is definitely one way to soften the viewing experience.
Credit to Burnley.
They are a very limited, workmanlike side, predominantly made up of players not really up to this level, but their work-rate from week to week is fantastic, and they will pick up points at home against other challengers.
It’s easy to dismiss their efforts as being simply negative and defensive only, but although sitting stupendously deep as a team, positionally they were excellent throughout, providing an infinitely more effective barrier than other recent opposition that have sat back.
After the first half footballing orgasms of the previous two fixtures, Arsenal started pretty well, but ultimately the game showed that a roving false-nine with support from wider and deeper only really works as a tactical knife through butter if a) more components than not are ‘on it’ and b) the opposition backline and midfield are willing to be tugged out of position, creating gaps to be exploited.
Burnley weren’t willing to play ball.
Their discipline in maintaining team shape speaks volumes for their professionalism and respect for their coach. Apart from the odd counter-attack or piece of broken play, their back seven were impeccably positioned at all times, with further defensive doubling up provided by the wide-men.
It didn’t make for a spectacle, but it’s not often Arsenal are significantly out-run by opponents. And to be fair, unlike many an away trip to limited opposition up north, our Sunday hosts didn’t try to bully us with violence, cheat or time-waste to any noticeable degree.
From an Arsenal perspective, it was an ideal fixture for a horses for courses selection, particularly off the bench, but all three of the most apt options, Coquelin, Giroud and Lucas, were absent with injury.
Mentioning Coquelin in such an attack vs defence fixture may seem odd, but his pace and aggression may have enabled us to win the ball back higher up the field more often, thus facilitating more counter-attacking opportunities. Also, although his distribution is not as varied or perceptive as Xhaka’s, he tends to move the ball quickly, and without him, there wasn’t quite the same snappiness in midfield.
The potential benefit of Giroud is more obvious. When the opposition backline is retreating deep into their own box and gifting you the flanks, a physical and aerially imposing target man with good penalty area movement is definitely an asset. Certainly, he would have made what crosses we attempted seem a little less wildly optimistic.
I mention Lucas as well because of his sharpness and anticipation in the box. He’s got slight ‘fox-in-the-box’ qualities that become quite alluring during late-in-the-match penalty area pinball. Certainly, as well as his quick breakaways, he snaffled a few poacher’s goals for Deportivo last year, and goes to areas from which goals are scored.
We also missed Giroud and to a degree Coquelin from defensive set-pieces.
Corners are a massive strength for Burnley, as illustrated in about half their goals so far this season, and as Wenger rightly noted after the game, we could have just as easily lost the game one-nil. Accordingly for all the promise shown by ‘Kostafi from a tactical perspective’, we could do with a little more size back there at times.
Matters weren’t helped by the fact that Ozil had one of those games where he resembled a skillful luxury, slightly more than the team-driving creative heartbeat in evidence during the two previous fixtures.
But then for a player whose greatest strength, for all his incredible technical ability, is his exploitation of space, the opposition alternating between eight men behind the ball and ten men behind the ball limited his scope somewhat.
Of course, this cloud also has its silver lining.
We are on a good run, two points off the top, scoring a few goals, and Ozil hasn’t had a single assist yet. So things on that front will doubtless improve.
It is probably no bad thing to have the post-Basel optimism tempered a little by an intrusion of reality, particularly as this happened without dropping points.
There are positive signs of a real team building, but it is still a fragile balance, with foundations still rather more sand than granite.
With things so bunched at the top half of the table, it is vital that we capitalise on our current friendly fixture list, so that the pressure for sterner tests ahead can rest rather more on our opponents.
Until then, it’s an international break and the usual prayers to the injury gods for clemency.
See you all on the other side.