Arsenal went from having gone four months without a loss to now picking up the pieces from two defeats four days apart.
Unai Emery faces his first real crisis since taking over as the Gunners look to right themselves Saturday at the Emirates against Burnley.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The patience afforded Emery when Arsenal (10-4-3) opened the season with back-to-back losses to defending champions Manchester City and derby rivals Chelsea was largely shunted aside in a positive manner as the Gunners embarked on a 22-match unbeaten run (17-5-0) in all competitions.
Arsenal have played themselves into contention for a top-four spot – with Champions League play in 2019-20 a potential welcome bonus to end Emery’s first season in contrast to a third straight Europa League campaign for his second – but a lack of depth in defence has caused issues that finally became too much to paper over this past week.
First there was the surprising loss at relegation-threatened Southampton last weekend, the kind of loss that left Arsenal supporters frothing at the mouth under predecessor Arsene Wenger in the final years of his tenure. Some of that defeat could be chalked up to not having suspended first-choice centre backs Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi available due to suspension.
Wednesday’s 2-0 home loss to north London rival Tottenham Hotspur in the Carabao Cup quarterfinals, however, was a harsh reminder of the gap Emery and Arsenal face in trying to break the top four this term – even though they are just three points behind Chelsea for fourth.
It was another makeshift back four to a degree as central midfielder Granit Xhaka was in central defence with Sokratis as Emery rang in four of his five changes from Sunday’s loss in goal and defence. Dele Alli, though, had too much class for the Gunners as he set up Heung-Min Son’s goal on 20 minutes and took one himself just before the hour.
“Today I am happy with our performance, but not happy with our result,” Emery told the club’s official website. “But also I think we are doing our process. They are ahead of us in this process. We need to continue creating our identity, our strong ideas to be more consistent in the games. But this is our way.”
The question surrounding Emery that is gaining volume and repetition is whether Mesut Ozil is part of that way. The former Germany international did not make the 18-man roster for this match and has started just once in the last eight in all competitions. It was also the second time Emery declined to select him to face Spurs, saying it was “a tactical decision because I thought that the players that were with us today were the best choices for this match.”
Another area of concern is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s form as he went a fourth consecutive match without a goal. He leads the team with 12 in all competitions, with the most recent one coming in the 4-2 victory over Spurs on Dec. 2.
Burnley (3-3-11) have plenty of their own problems to sort out, having been denied back-to-back league wins for the first time this season after a cruel 1-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. The Clarets did enough work, especially in defence, to deserve a point from their trip to Wembley, but a stoppage-time strike from Christian Eriksen left Sean Dyche’s team still at the top of the drop on 12 points as Southampton climbed over them on goal difference.
“I don’t think anyone is performing badly,” keeper Joe Hart told Burnley’s official website. “This league is just so strong that if you are not quite there you are probably going to lose the game. That’s not an excuse, so we need to be more ruthless at both ends.
“Burnley’s success over the past couple of seasons has been about turning half-chances into a goal and restricting a lot of chances at the other end to get clean sheets,” he added. “Getting back to that would be a great foundation and, as proven last season, it’s about sticking to that mantra and not necessarily being too expansive and trying to win games by four or five, but knowing one goal will be enough.”
Hart may be fighting to keep the No. 1 shirt through the holiday fixtures as original first-choice keeper and England international Nick Pope is back practicing after missing five months with a dislocated shoulder. Dyche had an injury situation solve itself to a degree as winger Aaron Lennon – who appeared in all but one league contest – is expected to miss time following a knee procedure, but Johann Berg Gudmundsson is expected to return after missing the Spurs loss with a knock.
Arsenal did the double last term, sending Wenger off in style with a 5-0 thrashing of Burnley in his final match at the Emirates. Aubameyang’s brace bracketed goals by Alex Iwobi, Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac.
The Clarets have dropped eight on the trot in all competitions to the Gunners, with their lone win in 12 meetings (1-1-10) in the Premier League era a 2-0 victory in the 2008 League Cup quarterfinals. Arsenal are 7-1-0 versus Burnley in league play and outscored them 13-2 in their four home victories.
Per Bet365, Arsenal are heavy 1/4 favourites to right themselves and claim three points from this match, while Burnley are 14/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline. The odds of the clubs splitting the points are also a distant 11/2.
Oddsmakers are expecting plenty of goals in this contest despite Burnley’s improved defensive form — there are 1/2 odds to finish with more than 2.5 goals compared to 13/8 for under the mark. Oddly, though, the oddsmakers also feel it will be Arsenal who carries that line since the 4/5 odds of one team not scoring edge out the yes for both teams bagging a goal at 19/20.
Despite his current dry run, Aubameyang leads the line for first goal-scorers at 21/10, with Alexander Lacazette second-choice at 3/1. Arsenal’s kiddie corps of Eddie Nketiah (9/2) and Emile Smith-Rowe (6/1) are next, with Ozil surprisingly slotting in with Smith-Rowe at 6/1. Ashley Barnes, Chris Wood and Matej Vydra all share honours as Burnley’s top option to make it 0-1 at 12/1.
Aubameyang and Lacazette are both expected to score in this match with 4/9 and 4/6 anytime odds, respectively, and even Nketiah is close to even money at 21/20. Smith-Rowe and Ozil are paired together at 6/4, while midfielder Aaron Ramsey is 13/8.
Barnes, Wood and Vydra are all 10/3 picks to prevent Bernd Leno from recording a clean sheet, and Sam Vokes is another step back at 15/4.
While it is far from a crisis, the cold water thrown on Arsenal this past week is a reminder of just how stagnant things got in the final seasons of Wenger’s run in north London. That said, it does have to be refreshing to a degree that Emery is pragmatically trying to fix things from match to match.
Both of these defeats can be chalked up to certain factors — the lack of bodies in central defence at Southampton, and quite frankly — Arsenal’s post-match celebrations from their 4-2 win over Spurs apparently aggravated enough of them to come out and put the Gunners in their place in the Carabao Cup quarters.
There’s no shame in being fifth in the table right now, but there is a very visible line of demarcation with that top four.
Arsenal needs to get Aubameyang going again, because as he goes, so go Arsenal. The Gabon international has seven goals at home in all competitions, but the only two he has scored in his last seven at the Emirates came in the win over Tottenham. The Gunners are 7-1-0 in all competitions when he scores, including a 4-0-0 mark when he bags a brace.
Despite the result against the Lilywhites, Burnley at least appear to have turned a corner with regards to shape and quality. Hart’s comments suggest there is no panic in the dressing room and Dyche still has their ears.
The concern for the Clarets now is finding goals. While it will technically not happen in this game since they were blanked by Spurs, Burnley have not scored in consecutive matches since Sept. 30 and Oct. 6 versus Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City. Dyche has tried every combination up front among Vydra, Wood and Vokes, even throwing Barnes up there at times, but to little or no avail.
There appears to be some sort of disconnect in supply from the midfield to the forwards because Burnley do have talent in those areas from Gudmundsson, Robbie Brady and Steven Defour, but it has not translated into enough goal-scoring chances.
The industry is almost always there for Burnley, but the results have been too few and far in between. Alas, that is the expected outcome for this game as well.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 3, Burnley 0.