Southampton on Tuesday Night. Not Bad!!
Making nine changes from the group which started vs Chelsea six days ago, Arsenal managed to advance to the round of 16 in pursuit of their third consecutive FA Cup against a tough and well organized Burnley FC. The match was a success in this regard and in so many others.
Beyond the result, it represented a return to the starting line-up for two of our most critical players: Alexis Sanchez and Francis Coquelin, both out injured since November. With rests given to other stalwarts, most notably Mesut Ozil, but also both fullbacks, Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin, and goalkeeper Petr Cech, we not only advanced in the tournament but also sacrificed very little in terms of squad exertion ahead of the league match against resting, i.e., already eliminated, Southampton.
Alexis and Coquelin were the quality elements in our play even if both look in need of playing time to regain competitive fitness and reintegrate into our style of play.
The match was also the debut for Mohamed Elneny bought earlier in the January transfer window from Basel FC. Moving brightly from the get-go (his first contribution was to foul a Burnley man), he kept at it for over 70 minutes with no sign of hiding from the action nor tiring. I liked what I saw, including the unsuccessful shots from distance, but I also believe he will have much better outings.
Substitute appearances for veterans Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta and starts for eager younger guys like David Ospina, Kieran Gibbs, Calum Chambers, Gabriel Paulista, Alex Iwobi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were also very welcome. Adding ballast at both ends were the two returning starters from the Chelsea match, our two bigger and more experienced Frenchmen, Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud. With all the changes, it wasn’t our most fluent performance but it was enough to get the result and show that we should be able to compete on multiple fronts as we approach the business end of the season.
Without breaking this one down in minute to minute fashion I will say that the match was played in an open style and with a generally good spirit. Chances were created at both ends and both clubs had periods of superiority but the 2-1 final scoreline seems about right. Burnley almost made an early breakthrough (through Gray) but Ospina saved well to deny them. On 19 minutes, after sustained Arsenal possession, Alexis slid a ball between a defender’s legs to Calum Chambers who finished with a Rosicky-esque reverse curler off the outside of his right foot. It was a lovely goal and a fine celebration with Iwobi (19 yrs old) and the Ox (still just 22). There’s some quality footballing talent in Arsenal’s future, I believe.
With the early goal, Burnley, a team up to 3rd and accustomed to winning in the Championship, were able to hold some possession and build some attack of their own. With Coquelin and Alexis back in the frame, however, they still had to respect our ability to strike quickly on the counter, while Giroud was always an outlet up top. Throughout, Elneny looked eager to offer himself as an easier, possession based target while also being quick to move into space whenever he passed the ball. Nonetheless, on 30 minutes, following a weird moment where Gibbs took out Coquelin near the corner of our box, the new man was a bit indecisive closing down a cross which found the head of a Burnley man (Vokes) for the equalizer. Both he and Gray had outmaneuvered Gabriel and Chambers at the edge of the 6 yard box and the header was unstoppable for Ospina who decided to stay on his line.
With renewed belief, Burnley looked the more likely to score again as the half played out. Beginning the 2nd they continued brightly which was perhaps their undoing. As an attack broke down on the edge of our box, Gibbs played out to Iwobi who advanced the ball nicely to Alexis who shuttle it forward for Giroud. Ollie elected to back-heel into the path of hard running Iwobi who sent a lovely diagonal pass into space that found the Ox streaming down the right. His first-touch cross just behind overplaying defenders found Alexis who would make no mistake from point blank range. Play with fire and you get burnt, Burnley.
That would end the scoring although there were additional chances, mostly for Arsenal, to add to the scoreline. The single goal difference, however, helped keep everybody on their toes, making the experience of the substitutes much appreciated. Iwobi and Coquelin subbed out for the final 20 minutes, Alexis a few moments afterwards, having all played well. Rosicky and Arteta, both also needing some playing time to help regain match fitness, will be more pleased with their outings than Theo Walcott, who, in added time, with only the keeper to beat, allowed him to save as he tried to round him.
I see almost nothing but positives coming from this one, though, of course we can always quibble with some of the performances here and there or at least see areas for improvement. Getting to scout so many players we don’t often get to see is a pleasure in itself and offers opportunities for all kinds of insight. I’ve reprinted Admir’s comment from the previous thread with just such views directly below. Please add your own.
The biggest positive, however, might be the thing we didn’t see: the rest given to some key players who will now be fresh and ready to get in on the winning ways of their teammates. How about a bit of revenge (served very cold…) for Southampton on Tuesday night?