The Gunners improved their chances of skipping the Champions League playoffs this summer by edging Burnley 1-0 on Saturday to consolidate second place in the Premier League. This eighth straight victory gave them a five-point lead over fourth-place Manchester City, which lost 4-2 at Old Trafford on Sunday.
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The Clarets’ game plan was simple. Play long balls when they had possession. Press and wait for counterattacking opportunities when Arsenal had the ball. Their tactical discipline was quite impressive. Despite the visitors’ opening goal in the first quarter, Burnley refused to go gung ho and kept a compact shape throughout the game. No wonder they managed to draw with Chelsea in February and beat Manchester City last month.
The winning goal came from an interception by Coquelin, who found Sanchez in the 12th minute. The Chile forward cut inside to have a long-range shot blocked by Shackwell. The ball fell to Ozil, who was denied by Heaton from a tight angle. Sanchez had a second chance from the rebound, but Trippier made the block. Ramsey pounced on the loose ball to slam it into the roof of the net.
Ramsey was forced to play on the right wing again to accommodate Ozil. The Wales midfielder’s performance was average but he showed his flair in the box with that ability to be in the right place at the right time. I thought the goal involved our two best performers on Saturday: Sanchez and Coquelin.
Coquelin’s sobriety and efficiency
Sanchez had very little success offensively but he never gave up and worked his socks off. He curled a free kick straight at Heaton by the second minute and sent a first-time effort over the bar four minutes later. In the second half, Heaton easily stopped a low drive and a tame header from Sanchez. Sanchez is a key player on the pitch because he sets the bar for his teammates in terms of work rate. His desire and energy are contagious. Take Sanchez out of the starting lineup and you lose quite a few percent of team spirit.
Arsenal legend Thierry Henry named Coquelin ‘Man of the Match.’ The 23-year-old midfielder is providing the protection that was missing when Arteta or Flamini was playing in front of the back four. Coquelin’s role is relatively limited: he wins the ball and gives it to our attacking players. Yet, he proved extremely efficient against Burnley with 11 interceptions and killed a potentially dangerous counterattack in the 76th with a neat tackle on Vokes.
Coquelin doesn’t have Arteta’s passing skills or Emmanuel Petit’s shooting abilities, but his reading of the game gives Cazorla and Ramsey the freedom to roam forward. They know Coquelin will fill in the gap if they are pulled out of position. Coquelin has improved since his first starts this season, cutting his turnover rate and refraining from giving away cheap fouls. There are still occasional lapses. Coquelin shoved Barnes on the edge of the box to gift Burnley a free kick in the 16th. He also lost possession in his own half in the 58th. But overall, Coquelin has now a better understanding of his position, acting like a defender inside his own area and showing restraint when the Gunners attack.
Some dodgy moments
You would think that Mertesacker and Koscielny performed well because Arsenal kept a clean sheet but that wasn’t really the case. Arsenal could have been punished for their centerbacks’ mistakes against stronger opposition. The Gunners played a high defensive line in the opening minutes to exert maximum offensive pressure. Yet, that tactical choice nearly came back to bite them twice.
Mertesacker’s lack of pace was exposed in the fifth minute. The German defender was four yards ahead of Vokes when Jones hit a long ball along the touchline. In a 40-yard foot race, Vokes overtook Mertesacker but was denied by Ospina. Five minutes later, Mertesacker missed his interception in Burnley’s half and the ball was spread to the wing before reaching Barnes, who was bearing down on goal. Barnes was flagged offside but TV replays showed Koscielny had played him onside. Mertesacker was also guilty of a sloppy pass that Jones intercepted in the 83rd. However, haste prevented the Clarets from capitalizing on that turnover.
Koscielny had his share of dodgy moments, too. He came out too late of the starting blocks in the 23rd to challenge Barnes, who won the header and a free kick. A poor clearance from the Frenchman gave Burnley a counterattacking opportunity in the 67th, but the play ended with an overhit pass. Two minutes later, Ings rolled away from Koscielny inside the box only to be robbed by Monreal, who cleared the danger. The Spaniard was definitely our best defender on Saturday.
It was interesting to watch Bellerin a week after he gave away a penalty against Liverpool. He lost a key duel in the 70th that offered the Clarets their best chance of the match. Mee nutmegged Bellerin to make a low cross that eluded Ings. An unmarked Boyd was still in a great position to pull the trigger but he slipped at the far post.
We had numerical superiority when Mee took on Bellerin with 5 Gunners vs. 3 Clarets inside the box. However, it became 4 Gunners vs. 4 Clarets in front of goal after Mee crossed the ball. I think the key mistake was Ramsey’s position at the start of the play. Ramsey should have closed down Mee. After Mee dribbled past Bellerin, Ramsey should have tried to stop the Burnley leftback instead of letting Mertesacker leave his post. Once Mertesacker decided to cover Bellerin, Koscielny ended up marking Vokes, Coquelin took care of Barnes and Monreal kept an eye on Ings. Cazorla was inside the box but did not mark anybody. With more defensive awareness, Cazorla should have moved toward Ings to allow Monreal to mark Boyd. That play showed Ramsey and Cazorla are not natural defenders. They made the effort to track back but did not analyze the situation well enough.
I felt Bellerin still had the Liverpool game on the back of his mind. There were a couple of times when he could have run to the byline to square the ball back. Instead, he preferred to play it safe, passing the ball back to a teammate. It’s only when the Clarets started tiring in the closing minutes that Bellerin finally rounded the defense for a cutback.
Poor body language
Ospina made two key saves at Turf Moor. First, he prevented Vokes from opening the scoring in the fifth minute. Then he palmed away Trippier’s free kick in the 24th. Ospina had two easier saves in the second half with Barnes’ spinning shot in the 50th and Ings’ overhead kick in the 73rd. The Colombia goalkeeper usually has a good ball distribution but was let down by two poor kicks on Saturday. Obviously, it would take more than those glitches for Szczesny to get his spot back.
Completing his second season in the Premier League, Ozil is still not enjoying the physical side of the game. Ozil clearly showed he was not happy when Jones made a rough but fair challenge on the Germany playmaker in the 39th. I thought that was poor body language. It’s like telling other defenders they can unsettle Ozil by roughing him up. When Ozil arrived in England, he sometimes tried to win cheap free kicks by falling to the ground when there was contact. He has improved in that area by staying on his feet because now he knows how referees officiate in the league.
Ozil set up Sanchez for a low drive in the 58th with a backheel flick. He then found Ramsey with a chipped pass in the 64th. Instead of attempting a volley from 12 yards, Ramsey preferred to control the ball and had his effort blocked by Mee. Technically, Ozil is our most gifted player. That’s why I was surprised to see him miss an eight-yard pass for Welbeck in the 85th. Ozil’s overhit pass forced Welbeck to shoot from a tight angle and gave Shackell enough time to drift wide and deflect Welbeck’s strike.
The Burnley match also showed Giroud depends on good service to score. The Frenchman had no shooting opportunity and saw his scoring streak in the league end at six games.
Wenger made no change to the team that thrashed Liverpool 4-1 the previous weekend. I guess that’s natural for any coach to avoid rotation when he has found a good balance for his team. Obviously, the danger for Wenger is to become like Mourinho and rely on the same 10 or 11 players. That’s how Chelsea suffered a minor dip in form in the past couple of months. Wenger needs competition within the squad to avoid fatigue, whether it’s physical or mental, and to have a successful run-in. It was a telling sign that Arsenal played at a slower pace after the opener. I saw players not guilty of complacency but simply trying to save stamina.