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Post Match Review

Arsenal withstand physical challenge from Burnley, earn all three points


When the Premier League schedule first landed this past summer, few Arsenal supporters would have singled out a home match with Burnley just days before Christmas as being particularly important to the season’s prospects. However, following two consecutive losses in less than a week, coming away from the match with all three points became absolutely vital to the Gunners keeping pace in their bid for top four.

Fortunately, that is just what Unai Emery’s men managed to do as they withstood an aggressive Burnley challenge to bag the 3-1 victory. The win means that Arsenal are where they wanted to be by Christmas, level with Chelsea on points in fourth place with third place Tottenham well within touching distance of hated rivals Tottenham in third.

First-half futility finally solved 

Statistically speaking, Unai Emery’s first season as Arsenal Head Coach has been a fascinating one. The Gunners’ 22 match unbeaten run, an unusual occurrence in a league as competitive as the Premier League, saw the team outperform their Expected Goals (xG) in 14 of their 16 Premier League matches during that streak. Perhaps even more surprising given the strong start to the campaign, Arsenal had yet to carry a lead into half-time heading into Saturday’s match.

That finally changed against Burnley as a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang strike 15 minutes into proceedings put the Gunners in front, where they would stay for the rest of the match. In doing so, Aubameyang ended perhaps the strangest statistical anomaly of any top six club this season. Unai Emery has rightly been lauded for his half-time substitutions and tactical changes this season, but he would likely be the first to admit that he would rather see better first-half performances than to continue leaving it all to do in the second half. If Emery can start extracting full 90-minute performances from his players, it will go a long way toward validating their chances at finishing top four.

Players answer the bell

In this modern age of football, with video analysis and detailed tactical plans catered to each opponent, teams can seldom hide their weaknesses for long before it gets exposed. At the beginning of the season, teams saw Arsenal’s struggles playing out from the back with Petr Cech and nearly every opponent employed a high press to put pressure on the Gunners in their own end. That problem has been largely solved with the introduction of Bernd Leno into the side and the players becoming more comfortable with the new style, but lately, it appears that opponents are trying a new tactic to unsettle this team: unrelenting physicality.

That is exactly what Burnley manager Sean Dyche wanted to see from his side at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, and his players certainly obliged. The Burnley players flew around the pitch with abandon for much of the match, challenging for headers with flailing elbows and ready to go through every Arsenal player receiving the ball with their back turned as the brooding Dyche looked on in approval. Ashley Barnes, the lone goalscorer for the visitors, was the worst offender of the lot, playing right on the edge of control and seemingly spending most of the afternoon one hard challenge away from receiving his marching orders.

In spite of Burnley’s boorish approach, the Arsenal players handled the frenetic nature of the match quite well. Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Granit Xhaka, Sead Kolasinac and Stephan Lichtsteiner all relish a physical battle and were in their element for much of the match, but the other players in the team responded to the challenge with equal gusto. With the centerpiece of their match plan foiled, Burnley simply couldn’t hang with the hosts, and Arsenal proved once again this season that they are capable of matching the intensity of their opponent.

A winning combination

Throughout his Arsenal tenure, Arsene Wenger was often criticised for sticking with a certain tactical approach and group of players no matter the opponent or situation. He famously carried an unerring belief in his players to achieve results simply by playing their own game and doing it better than their opponent. By contrast, Unai Emery’s reign in North London has been marked by near constant change, whether it be to the formation or the starting XI as he searches for the perfect balance between attack and defence. While this more pragmatic approach has yielded positive results in his first season in charge, it has also lead to him fielding some genuinely head scratching sides, only exacerbated by the recent glut of injuries in the team.

With Burnley travelling to the Emirates on Saturday, Emery knew that he would need to keep the ball and field players capable of breaking down one of the sturdiest low blocks in the Premier League. This meant the return of Mesut Ozil to the lineup along with Alexandre Lacazette, marking the first time both players started a match alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang since the Wolves game on 11 November. Emery had gone away from this combination in recent weeks in pursuit of a more resilient defensive side, but the Gunners had seemed to miss the creative spark the trio provide in its absence.

Wearing the captain’s armband and being given the freedom to operate in the number 10 role behind two strikers, Ozil responded to his critics with a solid performance, including one of the best passes of the season when he found a streaking Sead Kolasinac at the back post, immediately taking four Burnley defenders out of the play and allowing the Bosnian to cut it back for Aubameyang’ opening goal. Despite failing to find the scoresheet, Lacazette worked tirelessly from the front, consistently applying pressure to the Burnley back line and employing his excellent hold-up play as a counterpoint to Aubameyang’s defence-stretching pace.

Emery seemed to strike a good balance between stability and attacking threat with his 4-3-1-2 formation, and perhaps he saw enough in the combination to give it another look going forward. With a dearth of genuine wide attacking players in the team, the formation gives Emery a sturdy spine through the centre of the pitch while relying on the full-backs to provide the majority of attacking width. Given the current structure of the squad, it allows Emery to get as close to fielding his best 11 players in one side as possible. Injuries forced the Gunners to revert to a back three in the second half, but Emery’s decision to go with a back four at the start could mean he is once again warming to a more aggressive attacking approach. 

The importance of Granit Xhaka

Of all the players who started the match on Saturday, few were likely as happy as Granit Xhaka.  The Swiss international has found himself outside his comfort zone in recent weeks due to the developing injury crisis in defence that has forced him to deputise at centre-back. Despite lacking the top end pace and natural instincts for the position, Unai Emery has continually shown faith in his intelligence and adaptability, even going so far as starting him in the heart of defence last week against Tottenham despite having Laurent Koscielny available from the bench. 

However, Xhaka was finally returned to his home at the heart of the midfield, and the Gunners’ positive first-half performance reflected his calming presence in the centre of the park. Matteo Guendouzi continues to impress with his work rate and maturity for a 19-year-old, but he does not yet have the instincts and passing range necessary to perform as the lone controlling midfielder in the team. Arsenal were assured in possession in the first half and sturdy without the ball with Xhaka back in his natural position, and this was made even more apparent after Nacho Monreal hobbled off in the second half, forcing Xhaka to return to the back line. 

Despite scoring twice more in the second half, Arsenal lost their stranglehold on the midfield battle, forcing Emery to bring on Lucas Torreira to help protect the lead. Given the injuries still affecting the Arsenal defence, Xhaka’s spell as a defender may not yet be over, but his absence from the midfield has arguably done more to increase the supporters’ appreciation of his value than if he had never left it in the first place.

An angry Dyche

As the final minutes ticked off the clock on Arsenal’s 3-1 victory, many within the Burnley team and on the touchline were overcome with frustration at what they perceived as unsportsmanlike conduct on the part of the Arsenal players. At the final whistle, Burnley manager Sean Dyche raised eyebrows with his dismissive handshake with Unai Emery, and left few questions as to why with his post-match press conference. Coming across as bitter in defeat and nakedly biased in his viewpoint, Dyche railed against what he described as rampant diving and cheating by the Arsenal players. 

In spite of his insistence, a view of the match footage paints a very different picture to the tale Dyche spun from the podium. For much of the match, the Burnley players operated close to the edge of legality, following through on their tackles and often leaving their mark in a crumpled heap on the pitch. Dyche bemoaned the quality of officiating, but never mentioned how Burnley’s goal came shortly after a set-piece in which four players were offsides, with no flag from the linesman. He too must have failed to notice Ashley Barnes stomping on Guendouzi when trying to drag the ball from his grasp, as well as the multiple hard fouls he laid on players despite playing most of the match on a yellow card. 

In both tactics and demeanour, Sean Dyche is an English football traditionalist. Managers like he and Tony Pulis are repulsed by what they perceive as the inherent lack of masculinity in the beautiful passing game practised by many of the best sides in world football, and they long for a time when officials would let all but the most brutal challenges go unpunished.

Dyche’s petulance following the match betrayed a certain irony to his thinking; bemoaning players for attempting to influence officiating while doing very much the same in his post-match press conference. However, Dyche ultimately accomplished what he wanted to do with his controversial comments, taking the focus in the media off of his team being outclassed at the Emirates Stadium and putting it on the perceived injustice of diving. Unfortunately, for the surely former player from Kettering, it hasn’t made Burnley’s battle with relegation any less real. 

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