Burnley v. Arsenal match preview: press those clarets

Little Burnley, little Burnley, the club who wasn’t supposed to get promoted and who everyone thinks should make the drop. And over the last few weeks, little Burnley have been playing like a club with nothing to lose and beat Man City and I bet you were among the Arsenal fans who cheered when little Burnley held Spurs to a scoreless draw. In an away game, to a little club, who have scored a big chunk of their goals from set plays, this is the kind of banana skin that Arsenal fans are used to seeing their club slip on. Arsenal take on Burnley in the late game Saturday and it’s a match which will require all of Arsenal’s focus if they are going to extend their 7 game win streak to 8.

I think the formula here is simple: keep doing what they have been doing and Arsenal should take all three points. Basically, I’d like to see Arsenal continue their high press, put Burnley’s defenders under a lot of pressure and force turnovers in dangerous areas. If the high pressure game against Liverpool’s back line worked to the tune of 4 goals why shouldn’t they continue that against a much weaker Burnley side?

Against Liverpool we saw an Arsenal side who looked to create turnovers in high areas of the pitch. Here is an example which led to Arsenal’s third goal.

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The team isn’t perfectly balanced, there’s a good outlet on Bellerin’s side, but fortunately, Arsenal have Coquelin and he makes the jump to break up the play deep in the Liverpool half. It’s a bit of a gamble because if he misses this tackle, Bellerin is caught in a 1-v-1 down the right, but Coquelin does win the ball:

IMG_2474

On the ensuing break, Alexis is fed the ball, beats his man with a deft dribble and scores a pearler over Mignolet.

That’s my entire game plan for Arsenal, make Burnley beat the press. That’s not going to be easy. Arsenal are probably going to dominate possession for much of the game. That means switching from losing the ball, which we will do, to trying to win the ball back has to be seamless and that is kind of a mental thing. That’s the kind of mental slip which often leads to an upset.

Defensively, Arsenal have to be on their toes against counter attacks down the wings. This is especially true down Burnley’s right side, Boyd and Tripper make a highly effective duo down the right. Trippier leads Burnley with 4 assists and Boyd is second on Burnley with 5 goals. On the left, they also have an effective winger in Barnes who has 5 goals. Burnley attack down the wings.

As for rotation, I see no reason to change the lineup from last week. Arsenal have a week before their FA Cup match against Reading. And since Arsenal will need their best and fastest defenders down the wings I would start Bellerin and Monreal. Wenger could still surprise us all in midfield with either Wilshere or Arteta getting a nod. After all, the old an has been rotating like crazy this year.

I’m predicting a 3-0 Arsenal win and a lively post match discussion about how insanely great Jose Mourinho is. I know, Mourinho has nothing to do with this match but that won’t stop the pundits!

One more thing to look for: on Sunday Chelsea play QPR and both Fabregas and Matic are on 9 yellow cards, if either player gets a 10th they will be suspended for two games. That means that either (or both) players could be out for both the Man U and the Arsenal matches coming up. Let’s hope Andre Marriner is up to his cards!

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Fabregas debate

It doesn’t matter who lifts the Premier League trophy, Arsenal are the winners

When Manchester City and Manchester United face off this weekend there could be as many as four former Arsenal players on the pitch. That’s an incredible statistic for any team, to lose four of your top players to teams who are fighting for the League title, made even more incredible when you note that Arsenal themselves are in second place in the League and present the only real challenge to the Champions elect, Chelsea. Chelsea who, I will quickly add, are winning the League because of former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas.

In a way it doesn’t matter which club lift the trophy this year: they will have built their team around a core of Arsenal players.

If we look just at the players in the League who have played this season and who played more than one senior game with Arsenal in the past, the total number of former Arsenal players making an impact in the Premier League is 18. I want to be clear, I’m not counting former academy players, or players like Yaya Toure who played in an Arsenal friendly once. Rather, I’m counting only the players who played for Arsenal at the top level. And those players are:

Senderos (Villa), Fabregas (Chelsea), Chamakh and Sanogo (Palace), Upson (Leicester City), Kolo Toure (Liverpool), Clichy and Sagna and Nasri (Man City), Robin van Persie (Man U), Traore (QPR), Mannone and Larsson (Sunderland), Fabianski and Bartley (Swansea), Adebayor (Tottenham!), and Song and Jenkinson (West Ham).

You could even make a half decent starting XI out of that group of players:

Fabianski
Sagna     Toure     Senderos     Clichy
Nasri    Fabregas    Song    Larsson
Adebayor    van Persie

That team would be very similar to the same Arsenal team that almost won the title in 2008.

For many of these players time has passed them by. Senderos, Toure, Upson, Traore, Chamakh, Larsson, Adebayor, and Sagna have all seen better days. Some of those players have even been tested at the highest level and left found wanting. But for the others, van Persie, Fabregas, Song, Jenkinson, Clichy, Nasri, and Fabianski, they are still integral components on winning teams.

Van Persie is second leading scorer on Man U with 10 goals, just 2 behind Rooney’s 12. Nasri has 6 assists, second only to Navas on Man City. Even with just one goal and three assists Clichy is still the best left back in Manchester. Alex Song has had praise heaped upon him all season from various pundits¹. Fabianski won the FA Cup at Arsenal last year and is now leading Swansea’s defense in goal. And of course, the star player, Cesc Fabregas leads the Premier League in assists and his club sit at the top of the table.

All of these players came through the Arsenal ranks during the same period of time. Most of them played together and they formed the core of Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger’s “youth revolution”. Wenger was given the impossible task, one which a core group of anti-Wenger fans will never accept, to keep Arsenal in the Champions League places while the club slowly built and waited for the new stadium to pay dividends. Few managers could have done it. None but one would have done it.² Wenger did it. And nearly won the League in 2007-2008 when Arsenal were top of the table until star striker Eduardo had his leg broken.

After that, the diaspora started and the last star player to leave was Robin van Persie³. Naturally, this leads to the “what if” moment. “What if” all the top players had stuck with Arsenal instead of going off to find their fortune elsewhere.

Arsenal have spend £100m in the last two years bringing in superstar players like Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. Players who have propelled Arsenal to 2nd place in the League table. Along with Arsène Wenger’s careful crafting of one of the best defenses in the League. Then, what if? What if players like Fabregas and van Persie, Nasri and Clichy, hadn’t left Arsenal for the money* or the promise to play football in their home town?

If Fabregas and van Persie had shown the courage that Wenger has shown all along, there is no doubt that there would have been a vindication of Wenger’s vision for the club. But as it stands, even without those two (much less the other 16) Arsenal are making a title run for the first time in 7 years. Perhaps Wenger’s vision doesn’t need vindicating.

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¹Admittedly, this is because Song is good at playing through balls and most English pundits think that, and dribbling, are the two best skills ever.
²Mourinho has the talent to do it. But imagine Jose Mourinho putting aside his ego for five minutes to take on this kind of project.
³I don’t count Sagna who left last year. He was well over the hill and his departure cleared the way for younger a, better talent to take his place. As evidenced by the fact that Arsenal’s 20 year old wunderkind, Bellerin, has Arsenal fans saying “Sagnwho?”
*van Persie is the 5th highest paid player in world football. The “direction” van Perise was most interested in was the direction to the bank to cash his massive paycheck.

Wenger

Wenger selection headache has Bellerin written all over it

Well, this morning has been a bit weird so far. My intention was to write an article about Wenger’s selection headache. And so, to get the latest news, straight from Wenger himself, I turned to his pre-match press conference on Arsenal.com.

I already knew that Arteta, Debuchy, Diaby, and Wilshere were available for selection so that wasn’t a shock. But when Wenger was asked about Debuchy he replied  ”I can only play three players over 21″ and that sent me into a research tailspin.

At first I thought this was a reference to the “homegrown rule” but there is nothing in that rule which states that you can only have three non-homegrown, over 21, players on the pitch. So, I have to assume he means that he can’t play more than three over 21 in the under 21 competition.

It was a funny thing for Wenger to say. Because it prefaced him saying that Debuchy lacked a bit of match sharpness. So, I suspect it was a case of the boss putting the cart in front of the horse. He meant that Debuchy needs to get some games but he’s not sure where he can fit him in. Wenger is giddy at the fact that Arsenal have so many players fit they are overflowing both the first team and the U21!

Arsenal have so many players fit that getting them all playing time, who should start where and when, and whether players can and should be sold is going to be the debate for the remainder of the season and probably for most of this summer. But let’s just go ahead and say this now: you’ve got nothing to worry about because among the many tricks that Arsene Wenger seems to have learned this season is rotation

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: Wilshere. Wenger has said that Wilshere will not be sold this summer and as it stands I believe him. Wilshere is one of only 7 home-grown players³ at Arsenal, Wilshere is under contract until 2018, and the team have invested a huge amount into this player with very little return.

There is a little niggle in the back of my mind that wonders: what happens if Wilshere doesn’t get much playing time in the last 8-9 games of the season and starts agitating this summer? And what happens if Man City, who are in grave need of young, English, players come along with a Bale¹ of cash for both club and player?

I don’t think it’s going to be much of a problem, Arsenal can just say no and I suspect that Wenger will find a way to rotate players in and out.

One of the hallmarks of this season has been Arsenal’s rotation. Arsenal are on a 7-match win streak² and during that time there has been plenty of rotation in midfield and in the defense. Wenger has played Gabriel in two places in the center half role, he’s played Ramsey wide, he’s swapped out Chambers and Bellerin, moved Nacho in and out, played Cazorla in the runner and at the number 10, dropped Ozil, played Ozil wide, put Alexis on both sides of the pitch (I mean in different starting positions, he’s always so active it looks like he plays both sides of the pitch!) and started Theo Walcott. This is the chart I made after looking at  the starting lineups for the last 7 matches.

Gibbs Koz Paul Bell
Alexis Ozil Coq Caz Ox
Gibbs Paul Mert Bell
Alexis Rosy Coq Caz Ozil
Nachos Koz Mert Bell
Alexis Ozil Coq Caz Ox
Nachos Koz Mert Chambo
Alexis Ozil Coq Ramsey Walcott
Nachos Koz Mert Bell
Welbs Ozil Coq Caz Alexis
Nachos Koz Paul Chambo
Welbs Cazorla Coq Ramsey Alexis
Nachos Koz Mert Bell
Alexis Ozil Coq Caz RAMSEY

Only two players are in every starting lineup in these last 7 matches: Coquelin and Alexis. Koscielny, Özil, and Cazorla started 6; Mertesacker, Bellerin, and Nacho started 5; Paulista and Ramsey 3; Gibbs, Chambo, Welbs, and Ox just 2; and Rosicky the 1.

This seems like a pretty big departure for Arsenal in terms of rotation, especially for the back four. Most Arsenal fans are used to the boss being forced to rotate players through injury but it looks like Wenger is rotating more out of tactical concerns than necessity.

This bodes well for the players returning from injury. Arteta is Arsenal’s most cultured player on the ball. His ability to break lines and find the perfect pass nearly every time will allow Wenger to move Cazorla up into the #10 spot, move Ozil over to a wing spot, and rest Alexis. Wilshere can come in an play for Cazorla in midfield and give him a rest. And Debuchy is one of Arsenal’s best players in the air, there is no shame in putting Bellerin on the bench when Arsenal face a Hull, Sunderland, or Man U.

The two players who will probably struggle to get games are Szczesny and Diaby. Szczesny because Wenger seems like he’s not done punishing him yet and Diaby because he’s been out for so long that it’s impossible to see where he would play. Unless it’s as a sub late in games that Arsenal have wrapped up.

Wenger’s medical crew have done a fantastic job getting players back early this season and Wenger has done his best to keep players fresh through a rotation policy which seems to also take into account the tactical needs of the team. I see plenty of people wondering how everyone is going too fit back in but I, for one am not at all worried.

If Wenger has a “selection headache” it’s got Bellerin written all over it. 

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¹Gareth Bale, world record transfer
²All competitions, they are actually on an 8-match win streak in Premier League play
³Coquelin, Ramsey, Szczesny, Welbeck, Wallcott, Wilshere, and Gibbs