After a last-gasp winner in stoppage time helped Arsenal to a uncharacteristically ugly victory over Burnley back at the start of October, questions have already been asked in regards to their title credentials.
With 21 matches played, Arsenal sit eight points behind current leaders Chelsea with only a point separating themselves and both Tottenham (2nd) and Liverpool in third place.
It’s matches like these which really test champions’ mettle so to speak, against the lesser sides who are eager to sit back, take calculated risks and ultimately snatch a result against better opposition.
The importance of fixtures such as these cannot be understated – not least with games against Chelsea, Southampton and a last-16 two-leg tie with Bayern Munich on the horizons in the near future.
There was plenty for Arsène Wenger to discuss in the pre-match build-up, especially some revised injury updates and a contract extension too.
Per Mertesacker (knee) has been sidelined since the start of the season but gradually began to make sporadic appearances during training sessions and media duties, with the commanding centre-back nearing a return – pencilled in for the end of January. Wenger has activated a clause in the German’s contract to extend his existing deal for another year and revealed the choice was “an easy decision” to make.
“He is a leader of the team and he is also one of the four centre-backs who has experience and can guide the team,” the boss explained.
As far as Sunday’s visitors Burnley are concerned, their season has been described as nothing short of unbelievable from Wenger’s perspective, especially as they were tipped for relegation candidates at the start of the campaign and sit comfortably in 10th place, 10 points away from the relegation zone.
With that being said, the boss called for his side to start the match at a much quicker pace than they have done in recent games. They were punished against Bournemouth during a sluggish first-half display defensively, and could’ve been caught out against Paul Clement’s Swansea side too – if not for a lack of clinical finishing from last week’s hosts.
“Maybe [we thrive in the second half] because the other teams have suffered a little bit from the pace we put into the game, and they cannot last for 90 minutes,” Wenger said.
He then went on to further explain his own style, “I’m a manager who likes to go forward but we have to find that balance between offence and defence, and that’s maybe where the future of this season lies – can we find a good balance between attacking and defending?”
In terms of team news, the boss revealed there were no fresh injury worries from the 4-0 win over Swansea.
Hector Bellerín (ankle), Francis Coquelin (hamstring) and Kieran Gibbs (knock) are all set to be recalled into the matchday squad after their respective injuries, although Bellerín is the only one out of the trio expected to start.
Olivier Giroud will be aiming to continue his fantastic goalscoring run, as the experienced Frenchman is believed to have recovered from a knock which restricted him to 60 minutes in south Wales last weekend. Theo Walcott (calf), Santi Cazorla (ankle) and Mathieu Debuchy (hamstring) are the other first-team absentees.
With all of that in mind, here’s the possible XI to face Burnley: Cech; Bellerín, Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal; Xhaka, Ramsey; Iwobi, Alexis, Özil; Giroud.
Burnley will relish the challenge of playing one of the league’s best, which makes them all the more tough to face. Given Arsenal’s home advantage though, it’ll be interesting to see how Sean Dyche plans his tactics on a bigger pitch to the one they’re accustomed to at Turf Moor.
They’re currently on a three-game unbeaten run (all competitions) and managed a slender 1-0 win over Southampton, who Arsenal made hard work of in their previous league meeting back during the early months of the campaign.
Having come close but eventually losing against both Tottenham and Manchester City away from home, they’ll be hoping to snatch an early goal to set the tone for things and have plenty of dangermen capable of doing just that. Andre Gray is the club’s top goalscorer with five goals and two assists in 15 appearances this term, whilst Sam Vokes (4+2) has also popped up with goals this season – but the service into the final third is where the game could be won and lost from the visitors’ perspective.
With the likes of Steven Defour and Joey Barton in midfield, not to mention the workrate of both Jeff Hendrick and George Boyd out of possession, there are plenty of interesting battles to be won for the ball in the middle third. It’ll be interesting and if they don’t start well, Arsenal could easily find themselves in trouble.
Possible XI: Heaton; Ward, Keane, Mee, Lowton; Hendrick, Boyd, Barton, Defour; Gray and Vokes.