The Gunners scored in the eighth minute of stoppage time to move into second place in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Burnley on Sunday. However, I still don’t see them as serious contenders this season. First, they trail Chelsea by 8 points. Of course, there are 16 league games left. That means 48 points up for grabs. But the Blues have been incredibly consistent so far, dropping points in just 4 games. Chelsea lost to Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, and drew with Swansea at the beginning of the season when Conte had not switched to a back three yet. By contrast, the Gunners have conceded 5 draws and 3 defeats. It’s OK to lose to Liverpool and Manchester City and draw with Tottenham and Manchester United, but dropping points against weak or average sides like Leicester, Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and Everton has significantly hurt Arsenal’s title bid. And second, the Gunners have a tougher schedule than some of their rivals. Spurs are 1 point behind Arsenal but they have already played Chelsea and Manchester City in the second half of the season while the Gunners haven’t faced any Top 6 team yet.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Moss, the referee, was under the spotlight for a couple of questionable calls. Xhaka’s ejection in the 65th minute was the least controversial one. The Switzerland international definitely deserved a red card for his reckless two-footed lunge on Defour. What really upset Wenger was the penalty that Moss awarded to Burnley in the second minute of stoppage time. Coquelin tripped Barnes while trying to control the ball. It was pretty similar to the play involving Koscielny and Ki a week ago. Coquelin flicked out a leg and withdrew it when he saw Barnes intercept the ball. There was contact, but was it enough to give a penalty? Wenger disagreed with the referee and got sent off after Gray converted the spot kick.
Managers usually rely on consistency to assess a referee’s performance. Wenger probably had in mind the penalty shout ignored by Moss in the 56th when Gray shoved Mustafi from behind while challenging for the ball. Honestly, it was a soft penalty, the kind of call that can go either way. But then, Coquelin’s foul was a soft penalty too. So where’s the consistency?
Then, Sanchez made a cross for Koscielny in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Koscielny met the cross but was kicked in the head by Mee. If Moss thought Coquelin’s foul was a penalty, there’s no way he could not award a penalty to Arsenal for Mee’s dangerous kick. Sanchez scored the winner with a cheeky Panenka and threw his shirt in the crowd after the final whistle.
It looks like the weak and average sides are taking a leaf out of Bournemouth’s playbook by turning the game into a physical contest. After the match, Wenger described Burnley as “a team who made the game very uncomfortable” for Arsenal. The Gunners enjoyed 70% of ball possession but struggled to create clear-cut chances, mustering just 8 shots on target compared to 7 for the visitors.
There was no mid-week game, yet Arsenal played at a too average tempo to really trouble a well-organized Burnley side. The Clarets showed more commitment by winning 18 of 49 tackles, while the Gunners only won 7 of 22 tackles according to Squawka. They also added a touch of cynicism to prevent Arsenal from punishing them on the fast break. Lowton received a yellow card for holding Sanchez in the 58th and Marney got booked for a cynical foul on Ozil in the 73rd.
Poor service for Giroud
As a sign of Arsenal’s lack of penetration, most of our chances came from crosses or long-range efforts. Ozil had a curling shot tipped around the post by Heaton in the 14th while Sanchez tested the Burnley goalkeeper with a low drive in the 40th. The Gunners struggled with the quality of the final ball but they put the Burnley defense under pressure the few times their delivery proved accurate. Koscielny connected with a cross from Ramsey in the 15th for a header straight at Heaton. Giroud then redirected a cross from Sanchez in the 48th toward Ramsey, whose backheel flick sailed over the bar. Mustafi finally opened the scoring in the 59th by nodding a corner from Ozil into the bottom corner. Arsenal could have doubled the lead in the 89th when the Clarets poorly cleared a cross from Bellerin. The loose ball fell to Coquelin, whose powerful strike was parried by Heaton.
Sanchez showed great composure to convert his penalty but I thought his finishing was poor a couple of times. He headed wide a long ball from Mustafi in the 10th and missed the target with curling shots in the 42nd and 49th. The Chile striker also held onto the ball too long and was dispossessed 5 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Sanchez has made progress in improving his understanding with Giroud, but it still doesn’t come naturally.
Giroud didn’t get much service although he’s a dominant player in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 20th when Ozil found him with a low pass. Giroud made poor contact with the ball for a first-time effort that rolled wide. Sanchez and Iwobi are great options for plays on the ground but crosses from the wings aren’t their forte. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a better choice to feed Giroud. Despite the lack of opportunities, Giroud contributed by making 2 key passes and winning 3 of 5 headers.
A costly lapse of concentration
Xhaka was having a good game until his red card. Besides his 3 key passes, tied with Ozil, Sanchez and Iwobi for the most by any player, Xhaka was the only Arsenal midfielder who won a tackle on Sunday, according to Squawka. He also won 85.7% of his duels, the best percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website, and helped his team evade Burnley’s high press with his passing range, hitting 8 accurate long balls out of 9.
His ejection resulted from a lapse of concentration and some poor judgment. For a split second, Xhaka lost his focus and failed to realize that the Clarets were cutting his passing options. When Defour intercepted his risky pass for Paulista, Xhaka panicked and made a reckless challenge on the Belgium midfielder although Mustafi and Koscielny were covering him. A similar lapse of concentration from Xhaka cost Arsenal a goal in the 3-2 win over Swansea last October. Can Xhaka quickly learn his lesson like Koscielny did after his first season in England? Koscielny is now the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense but he was just as reckless as Xhaka when he joined the club in 2010.
The partnership formed by Ramsey and Xhaka is still a work in progress. I felt Ramsey could have contributed a bit more defensively. The Wales midfielder made no tackle and no interception. Offensively, Ramsey made 2 key passes and had 5 successful dribbles out of 6, but none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. His failure to clear the ball in stoppage time led to the Clarets’ equalizer. Koscielny initially won the header from a Burnley throw-in and the second ball fell to Ramsey, who was reluctant to clear the danger with his left foot. Ramsey put Coquelin in trouble by awkwardly knocking the ball with his right foot. Coquelin couldn’t control the ball with his first touch and ended up tripping Barnes.
Bellerin & Coquelin return
In a strange game of symmetry, the Clarets also relied on crosses and long-range efforts to create chances. Cech turned around the post a diagonal drive from Barnes in the 16th before Marney fired straight at the Czech goalkeeper in the 60th. The Gunners struggled again to stop crosses from their left flank. Lowton capitalized on a Sanchez turnover in the 13th to make a cross for Barnes that Cech intercepted. Burnley could have taken the lead in the 28th when Boyd picked out Gray, who rolled away from Xhaka only to shoot straight at Cech. Boyd made another teasing cross in the 44th but Cech beat Gray to the ball. In the second half, Keane hit a long ball toward Vokes, who outjumped Mustafi to flick the ball on. Barnes beat Paulista to the second ball, but Koscielny managed to block the striker’s close-range attempt.
Within a few months, Koscielny and Mustafi have built a solid partnership at centerback. Koscielny acts like a sweeper, relying on his positional play and sound reading of the game, while Mustafi is a pro-active defender, more mobile and more involved in the team’s passing game. When Mustafi was dispossessed by Gray in the 20th, Koscielny killed the counterattack with a timely tackle. At 24, Mustafi is still a young centerback. He must learn to refrain from making silly fouls like the one in the 71st that allowed Defour to test Cech with a dangerous free kick.
In his return from an ankle injury, Bellerin came off the bench to replace Ozil in the 88th as Wenger was trying to protect his team’s lead. I expect Bellerin to start the next games at rightback since Paulista doesn’t have the Spaniard’s pace and passing skills. Paulista only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the defenders. His passing accuracy reached 92.5% but it’s a misleading stat because a lot of Paulista’s passes went sideways or backward. He only made 1 cross compared to 3 for Monreal.
Xhaka’s second red card in the Premier League means that he will miss the next 4 games. It also means that the manager will have no room for rotation in midfield since Elneny is still on national duty with Egypt while Cazorla may not return before April. Coquelin, who made his return from a hamstring injury by replacing Iwobi in the 69th, will therefore team up with Ramsey until mid-February.