Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Reversion to the mean is inevitable, even in the credibility-stretching world of football. Burnley have continually defied the odds this season. Expected-goals suggest no club’s current league position is falser. But, on Sunday afternoon, at home to Arsenal, the Clarets’ good fortune ran out in the harshest possible manner.
Sean Dyche’s celebrated defence allow more — and block more — shots than any other, but that well-worn statistic is somewhat misleading. Burnley’s equally peer-leading record as the side with the most functional offside-trap has flown completely under the radar.
Far from sitting ultra-deep and absorbing pressure, James Tarkowski and co. are always keen to squeeze up, denying the opposition space in midfield. As late as the 55th-minute here, the former Brentford centre-back could be seen ushering his retreating team-mates higher.
Only when the opposition enters the final-third do Burnley begin to defend inside their penalty-box. It is here that the remarkably small gaps between their back-four stand to them; racking up that league-leading 6.2 blocked shots-per-game.
That kind of penetration was rare for Arsenal in the first-half here, however. Burnley’s compact unit easily kept the Gunners at arm’s length, denying goalkeeper Nick Pope a single save to make.
Only Aaron Ramsey’s determination to get forward from central-midfield occasionally tested the hosts. The Welsh midfielder should have finished an easy counter-attacking chance, on the one occasion Burnley’s defensive transitions failed them.
Ramsey, uncharacteristically restrained against Tottenham, was not the only aspect of Arsenal’s play unrecognisable from last week. The high-press that boxed in their derby rivals disappeared here; pointless against the league’s most direct side.
Indeed, Burnley were predictably keen to go long to lone target-man Ashley Barnes. The striker held the ball up brilliantly for his side, bullying Arsenal’s central-defenders into conceding several dangerous free-kicks. One of them, conceded by Laurent Koscielny, resulted in Robbie Brady testing Petr Cech — the half’s only shot-on-target.
As compact laterally as they were from back-to-front, the Clarets dominated the second-ball too. Arsenal’s poor defensive structure hurt them in this regard, with Alexis Sanchez particularly culpable in getting caught ahead of the ball.
Burnley’s wide players, Robbie Brady and Johann Gudmundsson, continually received possession in space between Arsenal’s wide-forwards and wing-backs. Both were prominent throughout the first-half, with the Icelandic winger ghosting in behind Sead Kolasinac to strike a post early on. Brady had initiated the break by robbing the ponderous Hector Bellerin.
Struggling in midfield, and creating no chances, Wenger enacted a much-needed change at half-time. In came the en vogue 3-5-2 formation, to match Burnley man-for-man in the middle — and test their centre-backs with a two-on-two conundrum. Sanchez joined Alexandre Lacazette up top.
And, almost immediately, the Chilean scurried in between Matthew Lowton and Tarkowski to tee up a big Kolasinac chance (blocked, of course). Unconsciously, Burnley began to drop deeper, to minimise that danger. Hence the aforementioned Tarkowski gesture.
Which was an entirely empty one. Burnley sank deeper regardless, and an ever-advancing Arsenal duly responded. Both Ramsey and substitute Jack Wilshere almost played as auxiliary centre-forwards, bombing forward either side of holding midfielder Granit Xhaka. Sanchez held a left-leaning, Thierry Henry-style, position on Lowton’s shoulder.
Both Ramsey and Wilshere saw late efforts blocked by Mee, as the Gunners continued to huff and puff. Eventually, however, the Clarets’ house was blown down — in slightly controversial circumstances.
Gudmundsson and Brady nigh-on completed a back-six in the second-half, such was their shared dedication to tracking Arsenal’s wing-backs. Alas, the former lost Kolasinac in injury-time, allowing the Bosnian to head Xhaka’s switch-of-play across goal. Tarkowski was adjuged to have downed Ramsey at the near-post, allowing Sanchez to win it from the spot.
An unfortunate conclusion for Dyche’s resolute troops therefore, but their feted manager’s second-half substitution should be questioned too. Introducing Chris Wood up top to relieve pressure made sense, but removing a central-midfielder — in Steven Defour — to do so did not.
Barnes looked understandably leggy in his new number-10 position, and was unable to close Xhaka down. Perhaps pairing Wood’s arrival with that of either Scott Arfield or Ashley Westwood may have been wiser. Small margins, granted, but things tend not to go all one’s own way forever.
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