Don’t look now Gooners, but we’re back! Fourth place is now the sole property of Arsenal after Alexis Sanchez slotted home a last second penalty to send Arsene Wenger and his men home with three points. In a chippy affair at cold, rainy Turf Moor, the Gunners gave as good as the got to a very physical Burnley side, proving yet again that toughness may be this group’s most underrated asset. While Burnley players still towered over their counterparts all over the pitch, the Arsenal side is now laced with big, physical players in their own right that are capable of playing in the mud if that is what their opponent would prefer. Sean Dyche’s team is as organised as they come, and the victory was as hard fought as the Gunners are likely to earn all season.
Whether you believe that Mesut Ozil truly fell ill just before the match, he was faking it, or that Arsene Wenger did not want to expose the Premier League’s top chances creator to a rough and tumble match in the cold and wet, it nearly backfired on Arsene Wenger. Alex Iwobi was elevated into the starting XI to lacklustre results, and even his replacement for Jack Wilshere wasn’t enough to ever truly help the Gunners break down a difficult Burnley side. Some fans will almost certainly be pointing the finger at the German playmaker, as his ability to negotiate with other clubs in January has rather eroded the benefit of the doubt that otherwise might have been afforded him.
Without Ozil in the starting lineup, some might expect improved defensive efficiency, but Alex Iwobi neither covers the same distance as Ozil, nor does he have the same impact in the attacking third. Watching Iwobi grow in confidence and importance when he is on the pitch has been a joy these past couple seasons, but the Gunners are a still not nearly as good a side with him involved. Replacing him with Jack Wilshere gives them more creativity through the middle but sacrifices some athleticism in the wide areas. With Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck the only other senior forwards capable of filling that role (albeit, as more of a true winger than creative forward), the Gunners will desperately need to replace Ozil should he decide to leave in a little over a month.
A Dyche With A Future
In future times, fans may not remember a 1-0 victory over a Burnley side that hardly challenges for the league every season, but that would be a massive injustice to Sean Dyche. Since replacing Eddie Howe as the manager of Burnley in 2012, he has twice gotten his side promoted to the Premier League, and now he has the small club battling it out with the best teams in England, and with impressive success. In a league with few that contend for the title and a whole host of clubs that play just to not lose most weeks, Dyche may be the best of the latter. His ability to set up a frighteningly effective low blow is unmatched in England, and his intensity has been ingrained into the way his team plays for him. Burnley has moved on from a very good defender, Michael Keane and shown little indication that they miss him this season, with the defense still third in the league in goals conceded.
With Everton already showing intensive interest and a host of other clubs underperforming with either good squads or money to spend, Dyche may not be long for the Lancashire club. His ability to keep a team of such limited means in the top division in such convincing fashion is as highly regarded as any in the country at present, but if he leaves, it must be for the right situation. We have seen how teams have struggled because of the disconnect between manager and the club hierarchy, so Dyche must go to a club that understands the way he wants his teams to play and gives him the time to implement his program. If he finds a club willing to do that for him, he will be at the helm of a big club soon enough.
Tightening Up At The Back
Sean Dyche is not the only manager who has his team playing well defensively at the moment, as Arsene Wenger has also gotten his Gunners to tighten up considerably at the back. Since Shkodran Mustafi returned from injury and joined Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny in Arsenal’s strongest back three, the Gunners have not allowed a goal in either match. After years of acrimony and anguish, Wenger has finally found a stable backline, with Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac flanking the trio to form Arsenal’s stingiest defence in years. Without Liverpool’s 4 goal explosion on their record, the Gunners would be right up near the top of the league in goals conceded, and had Mustafi played in the previous match against Manchester City, the result might have been different there as well. The key, as ever, to Arsenal’s defence is effort, and if the players can maintain the same organisation and intensity over the remainder of the season, they could find themselves right in the hunt for a title should City slip up late in the season.
The Controversy Continues
For the third consecutive time, a match involving the Gunners has been decided on a controversial goal, as Aaron Ramsey was hauled down in the box in the dying moments of the match, leaving Alexis Sanchez clear to slot home the winning goal from the spot, to a raucous chorus of vitriol and abuse from the stands, the Burnley technical area, and the claret clad players on the pitch. Most of the ire was directed at referee Lee Mason for awarding the last second penalty, but despite the hosts’ indignation, it was Arsenal who should have felt hard done by for the first 90 minutes of the match.
Not only was it a clear penalty by James Tarkowski to haul down the midfielder, but it should have been the second one awarded, after Hector Bellerin was brought down with a high foot in the first half inside the penalty area. If the final decision seemed harsh, Mason’s repeated whistles for soft fouls perplexingly favoured the burly hosts, and had the match ended in a draw, it would be Arsenal supporters on the rampage today. That officiating is so often a talking point after these matches should be an indication that something desperately needs to be done to raise the bar for officiating in England, because right now, this level of intrusion into the results of matches is rapidly becoming unacceptable.
Mind The Gap
Ah yes, order is truly restored! One week after beating the hated Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal finally put them back in their place with their last minute victory over Burnley (and a spud draw with West Brom) sending them back above their rivals and into a Champions League qualification place. For a club that has been inundated with a veritable omnibus of stories shouting of a power shift in North London, the league table will make for happy reading. Every week seems to bring a new challenge that many feel could trip the Gunners up, but with the exception of the tough Manchester City match, the team have mostly answered the bell since their troubled start to the season.
Arsene Wenger’s words last week gave fans a peek into the ways in which the team is trying to overcome their mental block during the season’s most difficult moments. His insistence that Arsenal should not be afraid or intimidated by Tottenham, nor be concerned with a so-called power shift in North London is key to the team maintaining a mental edge. Though Wenger has in the past been accused of sticking to his plan even when its not working, last season saw the Gunners move too far in the other direction, trying to be pragmatic to the point of losing their identity. This season, the Gunners have showed the confidence and willingness to adapt without changing the core of what Arsenal football is all about. Should the starters stay healthy, and the squad players continue to step up and get results during their midweek matches, Arsenal could truly make a run at glory in the second half of the season, particularly if their two best players stay put.