Saturday, November 1, 2014

Arsenal beat Burnley as Arsene eventually gets it right

For 63 minutes at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s performance against Burnley was frustrating. There were chances, and there weren’t any particularly poor individual performances, but with two holding midfielders, Arsene Wenger had got his team selection slightly wrong.
The Gunners were unchanged from the win at Sunderland, but that meant that both Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini started. In big games where Arsenal have to be more solid and are likely to play more on the counter attack, starting both Arteta and Flamini is fine. When at home to a team that hasn’t won a game all season, Arsenal are likely to have the majority of the ball and need some drive from central midfield, so playing Arteta and Flamini together is pretty pointless.
It was no coincidence that Arsenal improved dramatically when Aaron Ramsey came on with 27 minutes to go and offered some creativity from central midfield. Wenger’s side finally had someone who could support the forward players and play a dangerous attacking pass himself. He also wanted to receive the ball higher up the field, so instead of Flamini and Arteta being alongside each other in front of the centre backs, Flamini was able to sweep up in front of the defence and Ramsey offered himself as an option as a genuine link between midfield and attack. Even though he wasn’t directly involved in the three goals that followed his arrival, Arsenal had more options, more attacking intent and more intensity after he came on.
Even though Ramsey sparked the improvement, the other players had to back up the rise in the tempo. The man at the forefront of that was, unsurprisingly, Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean really is the real deal. He was playing in the number 10 position just behind Danny Welbeck again and was at the centre of everything good that Arsenal did on Saturday. He also showcased a skill that Arsenal fans wouldn’t have considered he had when he joined the club.
We’ve been treated to silky dribbling, pace and good finishing his feet, but most wouldn’t expect to see Alexis Sanchez’s short frame winning a towering header. However with 20 minutes to go against Burnley, his determination to get on the end of Calum Chambers’ cross was followed by a quality downward header back past the goalkeeper to break the deadlock.
That freed Arsenal up, so much so that they even scored from a corner moments after going ahead. It wasn’t a good ball into the box, but somehow it reached Danny Welbeck. The frontman’s shot was blocked on the line and Calum Chambers was alert to poke in the follow up for his first Arsenal goal. Alongside his assist, the goal capped off another mature performance from the 19 year-old.
With the result effectively sealed and the whole team visibly growing in confidence, Arsenal didn’t let up and created more chances in the last quarter of the game. Alexis Sanchez got on the end of another foray forward from Kieran Gibbs to control the ball in the box and stab the ball past the goalkeeper for 3-0. With four goals in two games in the centre of the pitch, Arsene Wenger does seem to have found a formula to get the best out of the team’s best player.
The last ten minutes also had more zip because of the introductions of Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. Podolski was unlucky not to score as he was denied by a brilliant save by Tom Heaton and by the post after two sweet volleys. I’m not sure the German could hit two more powerful volleys and not score. Walcott made his first appearance since January and showed glimpses of what Arsenal have missed without him. But for Sanchez taking the ball on and scoring, Walcott was waiting to finish off the third goal. He also tested Tom Heaton with a sharp shot on the turn and jinked his way past defenders showing his more direct running that had become a feature of his game in the season and a half before his knee injury.
While it was expected win, the tactical shift in the last 25 minutes of the game was necessary to get the Gunners over the line. Alexis Sanchez remains a superstar, and the rest of the squad showed signs near the end of the match that they were feeding off his confidence. As Saturdays go, it’s difficult to ask for more than a 3pm kick off, three goals, three points and three wins in a row.