Ozil, Ramsey, Flamini, Cech, Monreal and Bellerin were rested in the 2-1 win over Burnley on Saturday as the Gunners advanced to the fifth round of the FA Cup. Coquelin and Rosicky played their first competitive match since their return from injury while new signing Elneny made his Arsenal debut. All those players will have a role to play in the Premier League title race this season.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
That victory was another step toward retaining the FA Cup trophy. But let’s not kid ourselves, what really matters now is the work done on the training ground to end the club’s poor run of form in the league. The Gunners looked vulnerable against Liverpool, Stoke and Chelsea because they lost their balance in midfield.
Arsenal didn’t look comfortable in the first half as Burnley pressed high up the pitch. Coquelin, Iwobi and Elneny had never played together in midfield, so it took a bit of time for the team to find its rhythm. Sanchez set up Chambers for the opening goal in the 19th minute. Deputizing for Bellerin at rightback, Chambers sent the ball into the far corner with the outside of his right boot. Sanchez made it 2-1 by finishing off a counterattack in the 53rd. From eight yards, the Chile forward converted a low cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Starting Elneny in a game against a second-tier side was a smart move from the manager. The positives: good mobility and work-rate, decent technique, and an ability to shoot from distance. Elneny had five shots, tied with Sanchez and the Ox for the most goal attempts. The negatives: poor tactical discipline and weak in challenges. The Egypt midfielder was all over the pitch, lost a lot of duels and was too easily brushed off the ball a couple of times. Wenger said in his post-match news conference that Elneny needed to adjust to the physical side of the game in England.
Loaning out Iwobi next season?
Right now, there’s no way Elneny could play as a holding midfielder in the league. If you don’t win duels, you’re not a good ballwinner. Period. He needs to work on his body strength so that opponents don’t bully him off the ball. Coquelin and Flamini are clearly ahead of him in the pecking order. Arsenal fans had a small scare when Gibbs slipped and tackled Coquelin from behind in the 30th. Coquelin was able to get back on the pitch after receiving treatment on the sidelines. Playmaker would be a step too high for Elneny since he doesn’t have the passing skills of Ozil, Cazorla and Rosicky. That leaves all-rounder as the only position where he could fit in.
This has been a fantastic season for Iwobi. In the few appearances he has made with the first team, the Nigerian teenager has impressed everybody. Deputizing for Ozil in the playmaking role, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for both goals. The manager will have to make a choice this summer. Either he loans out Iwobi to a Championship side to give him more playing time and help him toughen up, or he lets him stay at the club for less playing time but a stronger emphasis on technique and reading of the game.
Iwobi was outmuscled a couple of times while running into traffic on Saturday. I therefore believe that playing in the Championship would make him stronger in challenges. Loaning him out to a Premier League club would be too risky. Nowadays, clubs have so much money that they can afford to sign experienced internationals and leave young players on the bench. I guess the Arsenal staff underestimated that problem when they loaned out Gnabry to West Brom.
The Chelsea ghost
In what has been a testing season for him, the Ox is slowly regaining his confidence. The England international had four shot assists, the most for any player. He could have finished the game with two assists if Walcott, clean through on goal, had beaten Heaton in stoppage time. You could feel that the Ox put too much pressure on himself by hitting the ball with too much power in the third minute and the 84th instead of simply placing it.
The goal Arsenal conceded in the 30th was similar to the one scored by Chelsea a week ago. Darikwa had too much space for a cross and Chambers was on the wrong side of Vokes, who headed into the bottom corner. Burnley also capitalized on set pieces to create chances. Vokes outjumped Paulista in the second minute to head a free kick and knock the ball down for Gray, who held off Koscielny to fire wide. Shortly after the restart, an unmarked Claret redirected a free kick toward Gray, who was put off by Iwobi and missed the target.
Much has been said about the protection given by Coquelin to the back four. The difference between Coquelin and Arteta was pretty obvious in the 90th. Arteta, who had replaced Coquelin in the 71st, allowed a Burnley counterattack by losing a duel in midfield. The Gunners avoided a replay as Gray shot wide under Paulista’s pressure.
Koscielny captained the side and his performance was again a mixed bag. The France centerback produced an energetic display, making 4 interceptions and winning 2 of 3 tackles and 90.9% of his duels, but he also made mistakes that could have proved costly. Gray dispossessed Koscielny in the 11th to bear down on goal and have an angled strike parried by Ospina. A mix-up between Koscielny and Paulista gave Burnley another opportunity in the 50th but Ospina denied Arfield. What was Koscielny doing in Paulista’s defensive zone? In the 73rd, Koscielny got booked for handling the ball while Gray was skipping past him.
The Gunners next play Southampton on Feb. 2 and Bournemouth on Feb. 7. They need to win both league games to make up for poor results in January before hosting leader Leicester on Feb. 14. If we look at the past few years when the Gunners were still in the title race at this stage of the season, we can see that they performed well in February and only collapsed in March.
In the 2007-08 season, when Adebayor scored 24 league goals and Fabregas had 19 assists, Arsenal and Manchester United were tied atop the league at the end of January. Although Birmingham defender Taylor broke Eduardo’s leg in February, Arsenal claimed a three-point lead over United at the end of that month. By the end of March, the Gunners were trailing United by six points.
Proving title credentials in February
In the 2009-10 season, the Gunners were six points off the pace at the end of January. Somehow, they managed to get back in the title race at the end of February by trailing Chelsea by just three points. Their hopes ended when Fabregas broke his leg in a quarterfinal match against Barcelona, leaving Arsenal four points behind United at the end of March.
Ramsey and Giroud spurred an unlikely title bid in the 2013-14 season by combining for 26 league goals. The Gunners were just one point behind the leader both at the end of January and February, but Ramsey’s absence proved a too big hurdle as Arsenal trailed Liverpool by seven points at the end of March. Ramsey picked a hamstring injury on Boxing Day and only returned in April.
The obvious question on any fan’s mind is whether Arsenal will have a full-strength squad in March. It’s a bit premature to think so far ahead. Let’s show first that we are still legitimate contenders in February.