Sunday, January 31, 2016

Burnley beaten as key players return

With Burnley going well in the Championship, Arsenal had to be weary of their opponents in the FA Cup 4th round, and couldn’t afford to play a severely weakened team. With serious Premier League aspirations, the FA Cup might not be as important to the team this season as it has been in the previous two campaigns, but as the holders, it would have been embarrassing to go out to lower-league opposition at home.
Arsene Wenger was able to make nine changes to his starting line-up, and even though key players like Mesut Ozil, Petr Cech and the two full-backs were given an afternoon off, you’d be hard-pushed to argue that it was a weak Arsenal side. This was mainly down to the return of Alexis Sanchez and Francis Coquelin to the starting line-up following injury lay-offs. Both got valuable minutes in their legs despite some rust in the performances, particularly from Coquelin, and contributed to a 2-1 win.
In many ways, it was the ideal game in which to regain some match fitness as, against Championship opposition, every mistake wasn’t going to be punished. The game was still played a good tempo though and was not the sort of match to just ease through.
Coquelin was alongside Mohamed Elneny, who made a very tidy debut following his January move from Basel. Despite the number of changes made by the manager, it made a nice change to have these good quality options to bring into the team after the same group of players have had to bear the brunt of a lot of games in the last two months. It will make selection harder for the manager, but it means that, even if there is rotation, Arsenal can have a go at the FA Cup and not surrender it in pursuit of the Premier League.
One of the players rotated into the side on Saturday made an early mark with an unexpected and outrageous goal to give the Gunners the lead. Calum Chambers, who has predominantly been used as a centre-back or a holding midfielder, got a run-out at right-back with Mathieu Debuchy’s immediate future at the club still undecided. As he joined the attack in the first-half, no-one could have expected to see him curl a beautiful effort from just inside the penalty area with the outside of his right foot. It followed good build-up play involving Alexis, but just as the move was dying out, Chambers produced his moment of magic.
I think his long term future in the game will be as a centre-back, but the goal was a reminder that Chambers is developing well, despite not getting too many first team opportunities this season. He had a couple of shakier appearances earlier in the season, but looked much more composed on Saturday.
Having gone 1-0 up, it looked like the game might have been a bit of a cruise for the Gunners, especially with Alexis looking lively and Alex Iwobi making another positive impression in the attacking midfield role. But Arsenal couldn’t grab a second and when Burnley got a sniff before half-time, they levelled the tie up.
Arsenal switched off defensively and contributed to their our downfall as Kieran Gibbs slipped and inadvertently wiped out Francis Coquelin in the process. The ball was worked wide and eventually Sam Voakes was able to out-jump Chambers and Gabriel at the back post to head into the net. It was one of Gabriel’s more difficult games at the back for Arsenal as he struggled aerially, but reminded strong in the tackle and quick across the ground. I still expect Per Mertesacker to return to the team after suspension against Southampton on Tuesday.
The game was in the balance in the second half at 1-1, but then Arsenal produced their second moment of real quality to win the game. Burnley looked to grow in confidence and attack, but that was their downfall as Arsenal flowed forward in a sweeping counter-attack. Alexis began the move before it went through a back-heel from Giroud into the path of Iwobi, who brought in Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right. His cut-back was good and Alexis timed his run into the box to clinically finish into the top corner. The Chilean will have been anxious to get a goal after his return from injury, and to have got one so early bodes well for the rest of the season.
Arsenal could have killed the game off to make the ending more comfortable, but the fluency going forward wasn’t quite there for most of the game because of the changes in the team. But the Gunners did enough with the two moments of real quality in the game. With some key players given a weekend off and others gaining valuable minutes, it was a job well done as the FA Cup defence rolls onto round 5.