After two exhilarating champagne and caviar displays against Chelsea and Basel, Arsenal were very much back to sausages at Burnley, but managed to escape Turf Moor with all three points after a somewhat fortuitous last-minute winner.
Wenger’s 10 outfield players played their 3rd match in eight days and it showed.
The manager’s decision to not disrupt a winning team in which new partnerships were gelling was understandable, but as a result of this, in his own words, “We lacked sharpness and our legs were heavy.”
Arsenal would have been naïve to try and fly out of the blocks at Turf Moor as they had at home to Chelsea and Basel, as attempting to playing at that intensity for a 3rd time in eight days would have likely seen them burn out by half time, like their next opponents Swansea did in their own game with Liverpool in Saturday’s early kick-off.
While it was a conscious decision by Arsenal to adopt a more conservative and considered approach than their last two first half performances, tired legs and jaded minds produced misplaced passes, loose touches, and sub-optimal decisions with and without the ball.
As such, Arsenal were unable to breach a Burnley unit that grew into the game until the dying seconds of stoppage time.
Having seen Chelsea crushed and Basel blitzed, Burnley understandably elected to sit deep and be compact. Arsenal were unable to unsettle their opponents early with the effervescent short, sharp, incisive passing game they bedazzled their opponents with midweek. The lack of a first half goal enabled the hosts to settle in to their own gameplan and grow in confidence as the game progressed.
Although Granit Xhaka’s usage of the ball was typically intelligent, his passing from deep was not as probing as it had been against his former club. This is in part due to Arsenal’s more advanced players not being as readily afforded pockets of space in between the opposition lines as they had previously been.
As Burnley were likely to cede possession and territory and Arsenal did not intend to press as intensely as they had in previous games, Wenger opted for another ball player in the team from the start in Santi Cazorla, rather than all-rounder Mohamed Elneny. Given his recent workload, it was not surprising to see the diminutive Spaniard, who turns 32 in December, look particularly weary in the final 20 minutes.
Burnley’s willingness to sit off Arsenal, take a more considered approach as to how and when to apply pressure on the ball, and instead look to collapse these potential pockets of space that Arsenal’s dangermen wanted to operate in, paid dividends.
Arsenal’s front three were marshalled well by Burnley and endured a frustrating first half.
Alexis and Walcott livened up a little in the second, but Iwobi was deservedly replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Nigerian international’s recent performances have rightly been lauded, but it’s important to remember that he’s 20-years-old, has only made 20 starts for the club, and is still learning and developing, so will have the occasional flat game.
Given how Burnley set up, it would have been a perfect game to have the option of bringing on the injured Oliver Giroud, to play the ball up to for him to either lay off to a midfield runner, or flick around the corner for someone to run onto, as he has done to great effect in the past for both Walcott and Ramsey on many occasions.
Mesut Özil, Arsenal’s technical wizard, had an off day and was a far cry from his usual self. Before the game, Elneny spent more time warming up with the starting XI than someone named on the bench normally would, which would suggest that there was a fitness concern about one of the named starters.
Given his performance and his conspicuous absence from the last batch of training photos before the trip to Turf Moor, maybe this was Özil?
On the day it was another German, Shkodran Mustafi, who was Arsenal’s standout player.
He excelled in his physical duels with Sam Vokes and really stamped his authority on the game, showing good defensive awareness and composure on the ball. His manager and his teammates have praised his assertiveness and leadership in recent days, which along with recent performances suggests he’ll be fully comfortable in his role as successor to Per Mertesacker as Arsenal’s new defensive organiser and leader.
Moving forward, it will be crucial to rotate more so Arsenal’s squad, and not just first XI are at a healthy medium of form and fitness to navigate their November run.
Spreading minutes more evenly will mean players aren’t coming in cold to an alien XI if they are required due to injury or suspension to a nominal starter.
Arsenal’s so-called squad players are a lot better now than they were a couple of years ago, and their names wouldn’t look out of place in a starting XI.
This isn’t throwing a Squillaci or a Santos in. We’re talking about Giroud, Elneny, Gibbs, the return of a fresh and revitalised Aaron Ramsey, and the introduction of Lucas Perez, who scored 17 goals in Spain last season.
With respect to the clubs Arsenal face in their next six games, this is a perfect opportunity to get everyone ready should they be required during a run that sees Arsenal host Spurs and PSG, while visiting Manchester United.