Arsenal face Burnley on Sunday knowing nothing but a win will do.
A phrase that can be rinsed and repeated just with the change of opposition, Arsenal face one of the few sides placed lower than them in the Premier League table.
This week’s installment of ‘where will a win come from?’ pits Mikel Arteta against a manager who has never tasted victory against Arsenal, and has lost each of his six visits to the Emirates Stadium.
What will take place on Sunday is likely to fall into the same groove as what we were unceremoniously witness to against Spu*rs. Two sides with distinct styles of play, for better or for worse.
Burnley’s setup is an old-school 4-4-2, with wingers who enjoy stretching the play in balance with one another, and two central midfielders renowned for their defensive qualities over any offensive contributions. Chris Wood will get the nod as the leading frontman and Jay Rodriguez will be given license to play off him, winning second balls or flick-ons in behind.
It harks back to the big man/little man duos of yesteryear, except they’re both ample sized.
When out of possession, the flat two banks of four will probe without pressing, relinquishing the ball and allowing whomever they face to explore avenues to goal from wide areas. Very much a ‘come at me’ approach.
Arsenal, despite Arteta’s insistence, don’t have joy whipping crosses in all afternoon, let alone against aerially imposing defenders such as James Tarkowski and Ben Mee. Where they’re weakest is when the ball is on the floor, as their pace is lacking to cover spaces quick enough, prompting gaps in and around the box.
Against such a system, it’s imperative that you have someone who can pick up what little spaces there are in between the lines, or at least force the central midfielders to drift out of position for deep runners to attack into.
If ever a match called for a 4-2-3-1 setup, then it’s this one.
All of the above is good in theory, but in practice it’s a different kettle of fish. Arsenal are not blessed with the brand of player to sit in the No. 10 role, with the internal solutions culminating in a combination of Willian and Bukayo Saka.
Working on the basis that Willian won’t be exempt from the team even if he changed his name to William, playing him in that central area would suit best. Is it his position? It is not, but by shoehorning him in behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and playing Saka and Reiss Nelson either side, Arsenal can have an interchanging forward line that allows Aubameyang to continuously make diagonal runs across the Burnley defence.
A low-block ensures such runs become less attainable, yet with pace of movement in the centre the shift from back to front can be sped up with the added athleticism of Willian supporting Aubameyang.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles in midfield to attack the inside right channel and Emile Smith Rowe supporting him is the forbidden fruit. Will Arteta heed those growing calls? Not likely. It’s forbidden for a reason. However, the Brazilian is someone who can make vertical runs if asked to, the kind of movement that we saw plenty of against Dundalk – albeit not from him.
Expanding the style to play passes from deep into the half-spaces is where Arsenal must explore. Even if Saka takes over Willian’s role and moves into the pockets, having the vision to feed him quick, line-breaking balls is where the Burnley defence can then be exposed head on.
Sadly, Arsenal don’t have the players to perform those tasks admirably, not least the ones Arteta persists with. It has to be a single pivot on Sunday – please Elneny – with central players who can press higher and play in between the lines.
The feeling of Premier League victory is almost unfathomable. What does it feel like? Does it make you happy? Who knows. Yet if Arsenal are to have joy on Sunday – it’s mad that certain tactical schemes need divulging so deeply against Burnley at home – then a flat midfield will bear no joy.
Here’s to Sunday being Funday, for a change.