Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 1-0 Burnley

Laurent Koscielny’s absurd last gasp goal gave Arsenal a fortuitous but vital win over Burnley at Turf Moor. Theo Walcott’s headed flick towards the back post from a short corner deep in stoppage time fell to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at the back post. With the goal at his mercy the out-of-form midfielder appeared to sky his effort from two yards out (a position where it was harder to miss) before it hit Koscielny’s hand and rolled over the line. Koscielny knew nothing about it and his hand wasn’t in an unnatural position so a handball call would have been harsh. However he was clearly in an offside position when Ox blasted it off his hand.

This was a fairly uninspiring performance against a defensively well-organized Burnley side prepared to drop behind the ball and deny us space in the attacking third. Despite monopolizing possession we only managed 3 shots on target over the 93 minutes.

The positive takeaway from this match, aside from getting the three points, is that we continued to pour forward in the closing moments of the match and put them under enough pressure to win the corner that ultimately led to Koscielny’s winner. In our two disappointing league results this season, the opening day defeat against Liverpool and the 0-0 draw at Leicester, we didn’t force the issue enough in the dying moments and didn’t really create meaningful enough chances to score.


Arsene Wenger opted for what currently is his preferred lineup. Mustafi and Koscielny partnered at center back with Bellerin and Monreal at right and left back respectively. Xhaka and Cazorla were at the base of midfield with Ozil in the #10 role behind Alexis. Walcott was on the right wing, Iwobi was on the left.

Sean Dyche went with the same 4-5-1 lineup that beat Watford 2-0 in the league last week. Matthew Lowton, Michael Keane, Ben Mee and Stephen Ward lined up from right to left in the back four. Dean Marney played as the deepest of the three central midfielders with Jeff Hendrick to his right and Steven Defour to his left. George Boyd was on the left wing, Johann Berg Gudmundsson was on the right wing. Sam Vokes started as the lone striker.

Burnley defense

Tactically this game offered few surprises. Burnley defended with at least nine men behind the ball with a midfield bank of five in front of the back four as expected. Hendrick would step forward to apply some pressure on Arsenal’s deepest midfielder- typically Xhaka- when he got the ball.

Their fullbacks defended quite narrow. They were usually inside the penalty box and within a few yards of the center backs. The wingers Boyd and Sigmundsson put in loads of defensive work in the channels, at times dropping so deep they formed a back six with the center backs and fullbacks so that Burnley were defending in more of a 6-3-1 shape. The screen shot below shows Burnley’s narrow back four with the wingers dropping back into fullback positions.

Burnley were understandably keen on crowding the center of the pitch and forcing us into the channels. Dyche was well aware that with Giroud still out through injury we weren’t going to have anyone to aim crosses at in the box. Alexis has a tremendous leap but he’s short and therefore not a huge physical presence in the box. Plus he likes to drop off into deeper areas and into the channels so he’s often not poaching in the box.

When we got the ball into the channels to either the fullbacks or wide midfielders or or Ozil drifting wide, the penalty box was crowded with Burnley’s bigger defenders and our only available passing option was to drop it back and try to recirculate possession. As a result we spent a lot of time moving the ball from one side of the pitch to the other without getting any real penetration. We completed 224 passes in the attacking third, our second highest total of the season, but our 3 shots on target was our second lowest this season.

This might have been the ideal game for Giroud had he been available. Alexis ran his socks off and was excellent again but it may have been effective having him starting on the left where he would have had more chances to run at defenders 1 v. 1 on the channels then pick out more of a classic poacher in the box like Giroud. Our attack was fluid but against a team defending as deep and with as many numbers as Burnley, all that fluid movement wasn’t really dragging them out of position.

Burnley attack

Burnley were unsurprisingly direct in attack. Using the ratio of short passes played per long ball played as a measure of how direct a team is (fewer short passes played per long ball means a team is more direct), only West Brom were more direct than Burnley going into last week’s matches. West Brom play 2.99 short passes per long ball, Burnley play 3.62 short passes per long ball. By contrast Arsenal are the least direct team in the league playing 11.08 short passes per long ball. With the strong and powerful Vokes leading the line, Burnley had no qualms about skipping the midfield and hitting longer balls directly into the big man and having him try to hold up play to allow runners from deeper areas to get forward. Vokes used his strength to decent effect. He was fouled three times while holding off Mustafi in the first 21 minutes, winning free kicks inside Arsenal’s half.

Dyche’s side have looked a real threat from set pieces over the last two weeks. They scored two headed goals from corners in their 2-0 win over Watford and were keen to use any set piece opportunity to get men into the box and contest crosses and get on the end of knock downs. They were unlucky not to go ahead in the 75th minute when Michael Keane hit the crossbar from a corner.

The graphic below shows Burnley’s passes into the attacking third. Notice how many of them are long balls from deeper areas. They completed just half of their 100 attacking third pass attempts.

That’s not to disparage their approach at all. Burnley are admirable in their reluctance to break the bank to try to remain in the Premier League and risk the long term financial future of the club. Dyche does well to get the most out of a group of players that not everyone may see as being able to cut it in the Premier League. I certainly don’t begrudge him of adopting a style that gives his side the best chance of getting results against more talented opposition even if it doesn’t always make for the most entertaining spectacle. Prior to our last minute winner they had the better chances- Keane’s header off the crossbar and Vokes bad headed miss when left alone at the penalty spot late in the first half- and should be a really difficult side to beat at home, as Arsenal and Liverpool have both learned already. If they can find a way to score more consistently they’ve got a decent shot of staying up.

Final Thoughts

Three points are three points. When the final league table is tallied in May this win will count every bit as much as the win over Chelsea. Luck hasn’t always been on Arsenal’s side in recent seasons so when we do catch a bit of it it’s important to take advantage. The fixture list remains kind to us during the month of October with home matches against 17th place Swansea and 16th place Middlesbrough before a trip to last place Sunderland. I don’t want to get ahead of myself but if we can get through those very winnable games unbeaten (we also have two kind Champions League fixtures in October home and away against Ludogorets) we’ll go into the home match with Tottenham November 6th in a position where a win would at worst put us 2 points above them in the table.