Burnley have yet to win a match in the Premier League, primarily due to their inability to threaten their opponent’s goal. In the Championship, Burnley relied on the target man-poacher combination of Sam Vokes and Danny Ings. Both players had a goal scoring rate of 0.5 per 90 minutes, leading to both scoring over 20 goals, accounting for almost 57% of Burnley’s goals last season. While Ings returned from a one month injury stint against West Ham United, Vokes has not played a game this season, as he is recovering from his ACL rupture. This loss has made it quite difficult for Burnley to defend deep AND score on counter-attacks—the manner in which a side of their resources probably has to play to maximize the number of points they earn (unless your manager is Paco Jemez).
Burnley do not have a particularly quick back line, and they seem fully aware of this. While they operated more as a pressing side in the Championship, the greater technical ability and athleticism of the English Premier League has dissuaded them from making such a proactive defensive approach a staple of their play. To alleviate the potential problems of their perilous lack of pace, Burnley tend to defend rather close to their penalty box. This will probably persist against Arsenal, with the fullbacks tucking inside to form a narrow back four. By tucking in their fullbacks, they look to limit the amount of space between the fullbacks and the center backs. This has the particular benefit of reducing the effectiveness of runs through the half-space or diagonal runs through these back line gaps, which can be difficult to defend, due to the added uncertainty defenders face because of them¹.
With a desire to keep the back line narrow, the wingers have to track opponent fullbacks. If they do not, then overlapping runs by the opponent’s fullbacks could stretch the back line horizontally to undesirable levels for Burnley (or just lead to unmarked players in dangerous areas). This can force Burnley into a kind of 6-3-1 formation with a three composed of central midfielders, two more advanced, looking to win the ball, and one operating the space between the lines. From this shape, Burnley can find it difficult to effectively counter-attack their opponents.
Offensively, Burnley will look to play long balls for Danny Ings to run onto. In particular, they will look to hit rather long diagonal balls from the fullback position, especially from right-back Kieran Trippier. However, with the amount of attention they pay towards keeping things tight at the back, they will probably employ a cautious approach with respect to throwing men forward. And without their target man, Sam Vokes, their ability to make the most out of these long balls is greatly diminished.
While Burnley have mostly played like a typical “smaller” side, they have shown a willingness to switch to their Championship style, looking to control matches higher up the pitch with pressure. After going down 1-0, to Everton, in their last match, Burnley looked to defend high up the pitch, force turnovers, and pin Everton in their defensive third. This style of play helped them get an equalizer. This ability to switch styles does allow them an avenue to get back into a match if they concede the first goal. However, whether they employ such a proactive defensive style against Arsenal will remain a mystery until it actually happens.
A Potential Benefit of Theo Walcott’s Return
Theo Walcott brings plenty of valuable aspects as a wide forward. He has fantastic straight line speed; he shoots well and gets into good positions; he presents a threat to teams when Arsenal counter or play a more possession-based game near their opponent’s goal. He has gone from simple speed merchant to a rather important part of Arsenal’s attack.² Outside of his obvious attributes, he may also provide a subtler benefit to 2014/15 Arsenal—greater width in the attacking front and a willingness to play away from the ball.
With the likes of Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Alexis Sanchez, and Danny Welbeck, Arsenal have quite a few players who seem to prefer to operate left-of-center. Combine this with a couple more players who like to play with the ball at their feet moving towards the ball, in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey, and the left side of the pitch can become quite crowded in the final third.
Let us look at this passage of play in Arsenal’s victory against Sunderland. (starts at about the 51:50 mark if you want to pick up screens) Danny Welbeck wins the ball on Arsenal’s left side. After the ball gets played back, the ball is swung to the right side to Calum Chambers. Chambers receives the ball and then moves it centrally to Mikel Arteta. Arteta moves the ball to Santi Cazorla, and Arsenal begin to advance down the left. Cazorla passes the ball to Gibbs, who advances with Welbeck ahead of him on the wing, Sanchez in the left-side half space, Cazorla behind him, and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the center of the pitch. Gibbs passes the ball back to Cazorla. At this point, Arsenal have five attacking players close together against six defenders. More importantly, the lack of width up front means that Sunderland’s defenders can shade over to the left-side. They also have a better ability to see both the ball and potential runners, allowing them to better respond to potential runs made by Arsenal players.
To be clear, the proximity of the Arsenal attackers to one another is not inherently a bad thing. As with anything, there exist benefits and costs with this allocation of resources. By shrinking the distance between the players, one does reduce the amount of space that a defense has to defend. However, having smaller distances between the players means the ball can move more quickly between them. Obviously, this requires an understanding among the players about how each will move and pass, and the ability to execute proper touches and quick passes in tight spaces. When it comes off, you get something wonderful like Borussia’s Dortmund’s first goal against St. Pauli in their recent DFB Pokal match³. However, Arsenal seem to lack that familiarity, and without Ozil, have fewer players that have that truly special combination of quickness in thought and technique to pull something off like that.4
What could help them take advantage of this clustering on the left is a player high on the right, looking to make that back post run/diagonal run behind the defensive line. Going back to that passage of play against Sunderland, note the position of Oxlade-Chamberlain in the center of the pitch. Imagine, instead of moving inside from the right into that position, that he stayed wide on the right and positioned himself a bit higher up the pitch. From this position, Oxlade-Chamberlain could catch the right side of Sunderland’s defense unaware of his presence. This could give Cazorla the option to clip a diagonal ball towards the far post 8-12 meters from goal for Oxlade-Chamberlain to latch onto. Even when the ball moves to Danny Welbeck, taking a wider position, about 12 meters from goal, would make Oxlade-Chamberlain a better target for a cross towards the back post. Instead, in the actual passage of play, he has to move from his central position to the back post to connect with the cross, stretch to try to control the ball, and finds himself outside of the penalty box with his back to goal.
At the same time, such positioning could incentivize Sunderland’s defenders on Arsenal’s right to position themselves further to the right in order to deal with the potential threat. If that kind of positioning allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to pull that side of Sunderland defense away from their teammates, then a gap appears for someone, like Aaron Ramsey, to run into. With the Sunderland defensive front jogging back and focused on the ball, such a run from deep would likely go unmarked. He could then receive the ball, shoot or create a goal-scoring opportunity for someone else.
Ultimately, a player like Theo Walcott can be valuable to a side, not just because of his abilities, but his abilities relative to his teammates. While a player like Oxlade-Chamberlain wants to get on the ball, promoting his drifting towards the ball, a player like Theo Walcott seems more comfortable moving away from the ball to increase his chances of getting into a goal-scoring position. Arsenal, having so many players who want to have the ball at their feet, and with a lack of familiarity among the players could have a significant obstacle preventing them from taking turns moving away or towards the ball.5 Maybe, by removing one of those ball-players for a player who has a greater preference for playing off the ball, Arsenal may be able to increase the ability of their side to produce offensively, even if they potentially sacrifice some ability to control possession, giving them a more immediate solution to this particular spacing issue.
So even though Walcott may only make an appearance as a substitute on Saturday, his impact on how this side plays will be interesting to observe, as it could provide a glimpse of Arsenal’s potential this season.
¹A run through this gap could be picked up by the fullback, but by dragging the fullback away from his defensive zone, space opens up for a player to run into the space the fullback vacated or just outside of it. If the center back picks up the run, then a giant hole can appear in the center of the back line. Since the fullback and the center back probably recognize the problems that could ensue with either tracking the run, there may end up being a hesitancy to react. This lack of action could be exacerbated if the run comes from the weak side (the non-ball side) as it has a greater chance of catching the two off guard.
²(Pure Conjecture) Walcott’s contract ends at the end of the 15/16 season, so this season will probably see reports of Arsenal and Walcott negotiating some kind of extension. Last time, Walcott had quite a bit more leverage in the negotiations that seemed to prolong the talks between the two sides. This time, with Alexis Sanchez as a more than adequate option on the right, and with Arsenal possibly needing/looking into acquiring a player who could operate as a truer left-sided player (as I said in a previous footnote, someone like a Kevin Grosskreutz could provide quite a bit of value for Arsenal on the left), an attempt by Walcott to play hardball could lead to a potential move, in the summer of 2015, if he does not represent a “irreplaceable” player for Arsenal going forward.
³I think that Arsenal could use a “truer” left-sided player, and if they want to purchase someone who could make an immediate impact, it would be hard to find better players than the selfless Kevin Grosskreutz. He is the key to this move, with his quick pass into the interior to Reus, his perfect run, and then hitting a fantastic cutback through the small gap between two defenders to Shinji Kagawa.
4Condensing the attacking space also has the benefit of greater effectiveness in counter pressing. When the ball is lost, a side has plenty of players around the ball and in passing lanes to force a turnover. Essentially, by making their attacking space small, they make the space they have to defend small, when they lose the ball.
5This goes back to the idea of coordination under uncertainty. If I am not familiar with my teammates’ tendencies, then it becomes difficult for me to plan my actions and behave in a manner that best coordinates the efforts of my teammates and me. Under such uncertain conditions, it seems likely that I would default to the behaviors that I intrinsically prefer, because I do not have a good grasp of the extrinsic benefits and costs of my actions. When it comes to Arsenal, with such uncertainty in coordination, and an apparent intrinsic desire to have the ball at their feet, it makes sense that the space around the ball can become congested with Arsenal players.