Arsenal did enough to beat Burnley today. They had 76% possession. They took 20 shots (the most they’ve taken in a home game without scoring in six years). They managed 1.4 xG. They had their chances, best of all Alexandre Lacazette missing an empty net midway through the second half. Sometimes things just don’t go your way, and you draw 0-0.
I don’t think Arsenal played poorly. They weren’t great by any stretch, but I think if they play like they did today, they beat Burnley 7 or 8 times out of 10. Nick Pope had a really good game in goal. The Gunners didn’t convert a handful of good chances. That’s football.
Martin Ødegaard was magnificent again today. His control, passing, and vision is outstanding, and he’s starting to dictate the attacking tempo of matches. Bukayo Saka was dangerous, as well as Gabriel Martinelli to a lesser extent, especially when Arsenal could get either of them isolated against their defender.
It didn’t happen as much as you’d like to see because Burnley did a good job doubling up on them, which they could do because Alexandre Lacazette doesn’t get far enough forward to draw central defenders to him. Lacazette does some good things when he drops deep to collect and distribute, but he can’t then get forward. He doesn’t have the pace or range anymore.
Kieran Tierney was poor — far too many lofted, hopeful crosses aimed at nobody in particular. Martinelli had his fair share of them too. In total, including set pieces, Arsenal connected on 3 of 34 crosses into the box. That’s awful. They made Ben Mee and James Tarkowski’s job far too easy. Those two are old and slow. They’re very good in the air. So why are you repeatedly floating balls that are easy, even for slow CBs, to get to?
Drive the ball across like Ødegaard did on a few free kicks. Or better yet, dribble into the box and run at defenders. Try to turn the corner. Make defenders risk giving away a penalty if they don’t time the challenge right. Give the referee a decision to make. There were countless opportunities to drive into the box passed up in favor of retaining possession and recycling the ball for another lofted cross onto a Burnley CB’s head.
Some observers thought Aaron Ramsdale looked shaky today. I didn’t see it. He dropped one corner that he came to claim, but it looked to me as if he’d been deftly shoved in the back by a Burnley played as he leapt for it. He made one or two really good saves and came well off his line quickly to break up play two outside his box, which isn’t his forte.
The performance overall wasn’t helped by Arsenal being incredibly short on players. The first-teamers they do have available are worn out from how much they’ve had to play in the last two months. Since the November international break, Arsenal have played 13 matches. Burnley had played 7. The upcoming 18-day break comes at a really good time for the squad to rest and heal up.
Alexandre Lacazette doesn’t really have the legs anymore to play a full 90. He played the entire match today.
Bukayo Saka has just come back from injury, gets clattered every game (4th most fouled player in the Premier League), and is expected to carry the bulk of the attacking load. He’d be sharper if he were fresher.
He also would have been more effective with a proper right back supporting him. But Arsenal have their starting and both backup RBs out injured. Ben White played fine, it’s not a knock on him, but he’s a centerback and doesn’t overlap in the same way that a real RB does. Additionally, shifting him out of the middle, where his passing and dribbling has been important to Arsenal’s ball progression in favor of Rob Holding, who isn’t a great passer, hurt the build-up play. It’s not as if Mikel Arteta had much of a choice.
Emile Smith Rowe had been having great success scoring as a substitute. He had to start today after a 60-minute, clearly rusty performance against Liverpool three days ago, and wasn’t able to play the full match. To be fair to ESR, he played pretty well, especially in the second half. There was a 15-minute period in the second half where Arsenal built pressure and looked likely to score. ESR was well-involved then and created the best chance of the match during that spell.
Eddie Nketiah, he of the 5 goals in 43 Premier League appearances, was the first player off the bench. That’s not good. But it’s not as if Mikel Arteta had many options. The Gunners had three outfield players with Premier League experience in reserve today. Nketiah, an at-best barely fit Calum Chambers, and Nuno Tavares. Charlie Patino has one first-team start to his name in the FA Cup. The rest of today’s substitutes haven’t made their first team debuts.
Maybe Nuno’s particular brand of chaos would have made the difference as a late change, but bringing on a 20-year old left back and hoping he’s able to make something happen with athleticism and a willingness to take players on isn’t much of a strategy. It’s a prayer.
Some of the thinness of the roster is an issue that could have been foreseen and perhaps addressed (but transfers are more difficult to pull off than we think). Some of it is the unfortunate decisions of Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey that had them both suspended for today’s match. And some of it is bad injury luck exacerbated by fatigue from not having many opportunities to rotate.
Basically, these things matter! It’s wrong to see a lineup of mostly first-teamers and think, “well they should be beating Burnley anyway” without thinking about players out of position and exhausted / not fully fit. Today’s result is down to a tired, thin squad, and bad luck.
And Arsenal get no help whatsoever. It really is remarkable that every match there is a flashpoint refereeing decision. It shouldn’t be like that. As much as it may seem like I like to or want to focus on the officiating, I really don’t. It’s not fun. Basic competence should be the bare minimum, not something you have to beg for and not get out of referees.
Ashley Westwood should have been sent off in the first half. He stamped on Kieran Tierney’s leg and saw yellow for a challenge that easily could have been given as a red. A challenge that Granit Xhaka absolutely would have seen red for. Minutes later, he threw an arm into Gabriel’s neck / face. It should have been his second yellow. He should have been sent off.
The color announcer thought it should have been a second yellow. The NBC studio thought it could have been a second yellow. It wasn’t given. It feels especially unjust to happen against Arsenal when the Gunners have twice this calendar year seen players sent off for two quick yellow cards — Gabriel against Manchester City and Thomas Partey against Liverpool (which forced him to miss today’s match). It also happened to Gabriel last season. Even if you classify it as one of those “could have gone either way” decisions, it’s another that has gone against Arsenal.
And I’m just going to skate right past the referee’s total lack of concern with Burnley’s time-wasting. It was on every single restart.
There is a different standard of officiating for every team in the league, and Arsenal, unfortunately, seem to be refereed tighter than any other team. Case in point Burnley, with their physical (read: dirty) style, haven’t had a man sent off in 112 consecutive Premier League matches. The second closest to that streak is Chelsea at 20 matches. That’s just not how football works.
The best way I’ve seen it put is that Arsenal are not good enough to overcome marginal refereeing. There is absolutely more that Arsenal can do — create chances, score goals, and not give referees the chance to make decisions against them (or just have better players capable of doing those things, generally). There are also plenty of times where had a borderline decision gone in their favor, they probably get a result.
But as I said at the top, that’s football. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way. It doesn’t have to be down to a horrible mistake, a missed chance, a particularly poor performance or even refereeing decisions going against you. You can’t win them all. Not even The Invincibles could. Football can be a fickle friend.