Gunners graft to win at Burnley

After the thumping win against Liverpool and the impending FA Cup semi-final next week, Arsenal’s trip to Burnley could have been written off as a formality. It was just one of those games to get out of the way before bigger ones come into view. In that sense, it could have been a challenge for Arsenal to get themselves fully focussed for the game.
It wasn’t prettiest of matches as Burnley scrapped hard needing points to stay in the league, but Arsenal got the job done to win 1-0, and secure an eighth Premier League win in a row.
Even though the Lancashire side are in the bottom three, they’ve taken points off Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham this season, and looked to play at a high tempo throughout the game. Burnley played with two up front and used them to apply pressure to Arsenal high-up the field, just as the Gunners had done to such good effect against Liverpool last weekend. This meant Arsenal weren’t able to have a good rhythm in their play for a lot of the game, but with the confidence in the team following the winning run, Arsenal always looked dangerous when approaching the attacking third of the pitch.
For all of the impressive effort and organisation from Burnley, they struggled to open up Arsenal, with Francis Coquelin again playing a vital role in the victory. It was his interception and forward pass that sparked the play that led to the only goal of the game in the 11th minute. The Frenchman fizzed the ball forward to Alexis Sanchez, who controlled the ball well before manoeuvring himself into space to have a shot, which was blocked. Mesut Ozil’s subsequent effort was saved by the goalkeeper, Alexis was denied again and finally Aaron Ramsey put the ball into the roof of the net.
Ramsey was starting again on the right of the attacking three behind Olivier Giroud, keeping Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck out of the team. While it does seem like a compromise to try and keep him in the team alongside Coquelin, Cazorla and Ozil, Arsenal do miss the more direct, pace, outlet on the flank. But, Ramsey’s recent league record has been excellent, with two goals and three assists in his last five. His season hasn’t hit the heights of his stellar campaign in 2013/2014, but given he’s had such a stop-start season, Ramsey is still likely to make double figures for goals, which would represent another good return from midfield.
From taking an early lead, Arsenal worked a few more half-openings, but because of Burnley leaving two strikers up, the Gunners weren’t keen to over commit players going forward. As Arsene Wenger pointed out after the match, the visitors to Turf Moor were slightly undecided as to how to approach the game after going a goal ahead. Whereas after scoring against Liverpool, Arsenal went for the jugular, they were more circumspect against Burnley.
The Gunners weren’t helped by the Burnley centre-backs doing everything to stop Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has been in excellent form, and always seemed to have two defenders following him around the field on Saturday. His link up play wasn’t quite at the standard he’d have wanted, but his presence in drawing in defenders did help Arsenal open up opportunities for midfield runners, such as Ramsey.
Mesut Ozil linked the play well again with a few deft passes and flicks around the box, while Alexis Sanchez seems to have had another burst of energy since the international break. Even though he didn’t get on the score sheet at Turf Moor, he seemed to be demanding the ball a lot more and looking to make things happen. Alexis has probably been helped by Ramsey playing on the right because if Arsenal are looking to go wide to a player to carry the ball and attack at pace, they’ll always give the ball to the Chilean rather than the Welshman.
As the game went on, Arsenal remained dangerous going forward and probably should have scored the second goal to avoid the final moments being a bit nervy, but the Gunners looked pretty secure at the back, so it would have taken something special for the hosts to equalise. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny limited the chances for Sam Vokes and Danny Ings, while Nacho Monreal had another quietly effective game at left-back.
The win did momentarily move Arsenal to within four points of Chelsea at the top of the table, but that gap was returned to seven with Chelsea’s victory at QPR on Sunday. It remains Chelsea’s title to monumentally throw away, but if they do somehow cough up the points, Arsenal just have to keep winning and see where they end up. If nothing else, finishing in the top three would avoid the Champions League play-off in August.
It’ll be interesting to see what changes Arsene Wenger makes for the FA Cup semi-final against Reading next weekend. With Chelsea coming to the Emirates a week later, on paper, a match with a Championship side is a chance to rotate the team, especially with plenty of players now coming back from injury. But Arsene Wenger will want to take the match seriously, especially after the scare Wigan gave the Gunners at Wembley last season. Along with the expected goalkeeper change, I suspect there’ll be some rotation at full-back, and an injection of pace with Danny Welbeck or Theo Walcott starting in the attacking positions.
If the players that come in can continue the winning run, even though the Premier League title still looks like a long shot, Arsenal can add a silver lining to a season that continues to gather pace.


Arsenal withstand Palace pressure to claim the points

I’ve always thought that the idea that 2-0 is a dangerous score in football is a slightly misleading one. While it does pose a tactical question about weather to keep attacking, the scoreline should be a clear indicator that you’ve got control of the game and don’t need to be nervous for the rest of the match.
But, the next goal in a match at 2-0 can be the tipping point. At Selhurst Park on Saturday, had Alexis Sanchez applied the finish to a swift Arsenal counter-attack having been played through by Mesut Ozil, the Gunners would have been out of sight in the second half against Crystal Palace with a three-goal lead. Even though it came late, Palace did get the next goal in the match to make it 2-1, and in the remaining minute of injury time, caused a major scare for every Gooner when Glenn Murray headed against the post.
Despite the 2-0 lead gained in the first half, Arsenal struggled to find any fluidity in the second half and invited the hosts onto them. Alan Pardew, who usually seems to get his team’s fired up for matches against Arsenal, had got his team to charge round the field and put pressure on the Gunners at every opportunity. The match did become a bit more stretched in the second half, but his side were able to keep up the frantic pace for the whole match, which was almost rewarded in injury time.
While Arsenal did get pinned back, the backs-to-the-wall defending in the second half was generally very good from Arsenal. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny dealt with almost every cross that the hosts sent into the box, not giving the strikers much of a sniff until the last attack of the game when Murray headed against the post. After a pretty torrid opening spell of game against Wilfried Zaha, Nacho Monreal tightened up his side of the pitch and nullified the winger’s threat.
In front of the back four, Francis Coquelin continued his excellent emergence into the team with an important performance. He was fortunate early in the game to avoid a yellow card for a high tackle, which given he picked up a subsequent card made a difference, but the Frenchman was typically combative and made plenty of important interceptions, blocks and tackles near the edge of his own penalty area. He was disciplined, and most importantly in such a competitive game, looked up for the fight.
While David Ospina’s introduction into the starting XI has coincided with a good run of form, I think the first choice goalkeeper is far from a closed book at Arsenal. The Colombian generally has done everything with the minimum of fuss since breaking into the team, but there were a few panicky moments on Saturday that would have had Wojciech Szczesny looking on with interest. I’m not quite sure why he came out to head the ball away from the edge of the penalty area in the second half, falling over Mertesacker in the process, and he missed the cross that almost led to an equaliser. I’m sure Ospina will keep the position for the moment, but if a misjudgement costs a goal, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wojciech Szczesny reinstated.
The pressure Arsenal came under in the second half followed a first half that didn’t have too much goalmouth action, but the frenetic pace of the match made it quite a compelling watch. The visitors settled into the match well and turned early possession into the lead when Danny Welbeck applied pressure to the unsuspecting Souare, who then felled the forward as he looked to advance into the area. The foul was on the line of the penalty area, which prompted Mark Clattenburg to point to the spot. As he has done with every penalty he’s taken this season, Santi Cazorla found the net.
With the attacking quintet of Cazorla, Ozil, Welbeck, Alexis and Giroud, Arsenal always looked dangerous when they had the ball near the Palace box, but on a very bobbly and slippy pitch, they couldn’t quite apply the final pass or finishing touch to some promising attacking moves until the very end of the half. Alexis found Welbeck’s excellent diagonal run into space, and Olivier Giroud was on hand to gobble up the rebound from Welbeck’s saved shot to collect his 50th goal for the club.
In the second half, that attacking five did have some chances to kill the game off on the counter, but again the finish, final ball, or in one case for Giroud in the middle of a flowing move, the pitch stopped Arsenal from extending the lead.
With Theo Walcott left on the bench, alongside Tomas Rosicky and the returning Jack Wilshere, it’ll be interesting to see what Arsene Wenger does with his team for the Champions League tie with Monaco on Wednesday. He might be reluctant to play such an attacking line-up in the first leg of a European tie, but with Cazorla, Ozil and Giroud all in good form, and Alexis almost impossible to leave out, it only leaves space for one more from Welbeck, Walcott, Rosicky and Wilshere. If Wenger wants a bit more control, then Rosicky will play, but if he wants to be attacking and look to make a fast start to the tie, Welbeck or Walcott will get the nod, and it’d be harsh to drop Welbeck after a positive performance at Palace.
Even though the Champions League draw was kind to the Gunners, they’ll need to be better than they were against Crystal Palace to secure progress to the quarter-finals. That said, Arsenal did show character to get the points against Alan Pardew’s team as it was a tricky game, played a pretty dodgy pitch, and other results in the league mean it could be a vital victory.

Resilient Arsenal finally show their steel

All Arsenal fans were tired of going away to the big games and losing. These weren’t just defeats though, too often they were hammerings. Arsenal were always open, naïve and did stupid things defensively. Despite the positive signs of the win over Stoke last weekend, realistically it was difficult for Gooners to expect too much from a trip to the Etihad given the recent record in these sorts of matches.
What the Gunners produced however, was disciplined, clinical and effective. Manchester City, apart from Yaya Toure, were at full-strength and looked bereft of ideas at the end of the game as to how to break through the yellow wall. Arsenal sacrificed the open, expansive, game to stifle David Silva and starve Sergio Aguero of space to weave any of his magic.
Even when the team sets up to be a bit more defensive, Arsenal will always have players capable of creating chances and scoring goals. The key in big games has always been keeping the back door shut, and Arsenal haven’t managed it in recent years. At the Etihad on Sunday, they focussed on nullifying Manchester City without just concentrating on their own game. It paid dividends emphatically.
The defensive midfield position has been a hotly talked about one among Arsenal supporters, as since the departure of Gilberto Silva, the sense has always been that Arsene Wenger could improve that area of the pitch. At the start of the season, no-one could have predicted Francis Coquelin would be in that role going away to Manchester City, but partly through circumstance and some good form, the Coq was in there, and he passed the test against the dangerous David Silva with flying colours. He tracked Silva around the pitch, made interceptions and didn’t leave Mertesacker and Koscielny exposed. Questions will still be asked if he is the long term answer, but he is making a strong case for him to be that answer.
Coquelin was at the base of a midfield that functioned brilliantly. Even though his touch was occasionally off, Aaron Ramsey worked incredibly hard given he was returning from injury, while Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky when he came on, and Alexis Sanchez all put in a shift in the wide areas. But there was one little Spanish magician who turned into a midfield powerhouse during the 90 minutes at the Etihad.
Santi Cazorla has been in excellent form in recent weeks orchestrating Arsenal’s play, but against Manchester City he delivered one of the best all-round midfield performances from anyone in the Premier League this season. Having to be more disciplined in alongside Coquelin and Ramsey in central midfield, he worked tirelessly to deny the options of passing the ball into David Silva, he made crucial tackles and interceptions, and then was his typical self when controlling the ball and escaping tight situations.
Cazorla topped off his performance with a well dispatched penalty before providing the assist for Olivier Giroud to nod in Arsenal’s second goal. Mesut Ozil should get some game time against Brighton next week in the FA Cup, but it’ll be hard for the German to displace the brilliant Spaniard at the moment. Whenever Cazorla plays well, Arsenal generally play well and he led the midfield brilliant on Sunday.
Up front, Olivier Giroud worked hard given he didn’t get too much of the ball, and always pestered the City centre-backs. His control out of the air was exceptional, and he took his header well to double the lead. Giroud is another Arsenal player that has been criticised for not performing in big games, but he’s now scored against Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool this season. Given he’s missed a large chunk of the season through injury and suspension, Giroud has a good scoring record and makes a big difference to the team.
With all the work being done by the forwards and the midfielders, the Arsenal defence was well protected for the majority of the game, meaning Per Mertesacker wasn’t exposed by the pace of Sergio Aguero at any point. Whenever there was the potential for the German to be caught out, he made some vital interceptions and clearances as he looked back to his best alongside Laurent Koscielny. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal also put in almost faultless performances as part of the whole team effort.
Because of all the committed performances in front of him, it was a surprisingly quiet day for David Ospina. The Colombian now has three clean sheets in three games, and did everything that was asked of him at the Etihad Stadium. I think we’ll see Wojciech Szczesny play at Brighton next weekend, but Ospina has merited the chance to have a run as the number one.
Arsene Wenger got his tactics spot on against Manchester City by focussing on the opposition rather than just relying on Arsenal’s normal game being good enough to get a result. The main aim for the team wasn’t to pile forward to score, it was to make sure the main threats from City, Aguero and Silva, were nullified as much as possible, because with Sanchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud and other breaking from midfield ready to spring an attack on the break, Arsenal were always going to be dangerous going forward. The balance of the team was right, the commitment was there and Arsene Wenger finally pulled off a tactical masterclass in a big away game.
It remains to be seen if this game is a bit of a watershed moment for Arsenal. Having waited a long time to win away to one of the big clubs in the league, Arsenal fans could be forgiven for thinking it was just never going to happen again, but now the Gunners are over that mental hurdle. They’ve set themselves a standard for these matches and set a level they know they can perform at if every player does a job defensively for the team. We all know Arsenal can cause any side problems with the quality of the attackers at the club, but they’ve now shown they can go away from home and give a disciplined and committed performance. The fight for the moment is for the top four, but Arsenal can now take confidence that they can compete higher up the table.