Saturday, January 30, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Burnley: In Search of a Spark

Arsenal host Burnley in the FA Cup 4th Round on Saturday, when the Gunners will look for their first victory since their 3rd-Round triumph over Sunderland on January 9.

These three winless winter weeks have left Arsenal if not desperate for, then certainly in need of, a strong performance and a positive result. A home cup tie against a Championship side presents an opportunity to spark 2016 to life.

In addition to the overall urgency and the theoretically ripe opponent, the return of several important players should provide the impetus for improvement on Saturday.

In his 30 minutes of action against Chelsea last Sunday, the dynamic Alexis Sanchez showed flashes of the energy, skill, and imagination that pose opponents such problems. He’ll be available from the start on Saturday, offering a threat that Burnley defenders aren’t accustomed to.

Saturday’s match will also signal the easing of Arsenal’s midfield crisis with the reintroduction of Francis Coquelin, out since injuring his knee at West Bromwich Albion in late November, and Tomas Rosicky, who hasn’t appeared in a first-team Arsenal match since a nine-minute cameo against Sunderland in May 2015.

The midfield will be further bolstered by the appearance of the newest Arsenal player, Mohammed Elneny. Observers, supporters, the coaching staff, and his teammates are all no doubt interested to see what the January acquisition can bring to the squad. Indications are the Egyptian will have an opportunity to show that from the start.

Thanks to this improving personnel situation, manager Arsène Wenger has more luxury to choose his lineup against Burnley, and supporters have reason to be optimistic. There are several reasons to be cautious, however.

First, the Gunners have a challenging league date with Southampton on Tuesday. Wenger will want to position his team for optimum performance that evening, for three reasons:
  1. To stay in close contention for the league lead
  2. To cleanse the psyche of the 4-0 drubbing at Southampton’s hands in December
  3. To rebound from recent lackluster results

As is so often the case with cup competitions, the manager must balance what’s needed for success on the day with his longer-term objectives and the freshness of the playing squad.

In that context, how much leeway does the manager enjoy to field players who are new to each other or who have little recent experience together? Although there are now several legitimate candidates for starting roles, a midfield completely remade from recent matches in front of a central defensive pairing that is, by necessity, not first choice seems risky.

Not least because Burnley are no pushovers. The Clarets are one of the form teams of the Championship, having gone five games unbeaten in the league to reach third position. They’re coming into Saturday’s fixture on the heels of a 4-1 dismantling of fellow contenders Derby County. And they’re not that far removed, either in personnel or time, from the team that gave Arsenal a real test at Turf Moor last April.

Statistically, Burnley aren’t remarkable. They have taken relatively few shots per game (11.4, ranking 21st of 24 Championship teams) and allow relatively high numbers of shots per game (14.4, ranking 3rd). They stand last in tackles per game and don’t commit that many fouls, relatively speaking.

Where the Clarets have made a mark is on set pieces. They’ve scored 13 goals from corners, crossed free kicks, and direct free kicks and four goals from penalties. That suggests that Burnley will try to copy the trend among less accomplished Premier League sides, described by 7amKickoff here, and draw fouls in areas whence they can launch dangerous free kicks.

If Burnley succeed in this effort, they’ll test the organization of Arsenal’s rejiggered defense. But if Arsenal can limit those opportunities and keep the game flowing, the Gunners should pass this test, move to the last 16 of the competition, and establish a foundation for the important matches to come.

Key Matchup

The Arsenal midfield against Joey Barton. In all likelihood, Burnley manager Sean Dyche will arrange his team in a 4-4-2 formation with strikers Sam Vokes and Andre Gray combining for the offensive threat. That will leave Burnley a man light in midfield, where veteran instigator Joey Barton will be charged with minimizing the impact of Arsenal’s superior numbers and skill. It’ll be a rude inaugural for Elneny, and the ability of the Egyptian to thrive in that situation will tell us a lot about his potential.

Where to Worry

Burnley are experts at set pieces, and if Barton and his teammates manage to draw Arsenal into a chippy, stop-start encounter, a strike from a dead ball is a possibility.

Match Verdict

It’d be unwise to assume an easy Arsenal win here. Burnley have quality and application that could trouble the Gunners, even at home. But I think Arsenal will be both energetic and persistent, and the Gunners’ superior talent will carry the day.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alexis. The Chilean seemed raring to go when he entered the Chelsea match. Although he was rusty, he pushed the team forward and hustled back when defensive cover was necessary. Burnley won’t have seen his like in the Championship and will find him hard to handle.

Burnley. Andre Gray. The 24-year-old Welsh forward has notched 15 goals in 23 appearances for Burnley, including five in his last five matches. Three of his 15 goals have come from the penalty spot. He’s the Clarets’ main attacking threat and will work with teammate Sam Vokes to divide the attentions of Arsenal’s two center halves.

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