Playing out from the back succeeds
There are plenty of negatives to look at from Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Burnley, so before we get on to them let’s focus on the positives.
The opening 35 minutes or so was almost sheer domination for the Gunners, capped off by one brilliant move in particular that culminated in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal involving their three best players on the day.
The ball began with Bernd Leno, who found Thomas Partey just outside the box. The Ghanaian, who contrary to some of the criticism he has been getting on social media, had a sublime game, then showed exactly why Arsenal bought him through a nifty one-two with Granit Xhaka that had the Arsenal attack away.
The ball then found Willian in the middle of the pitch. The Brazilian had another good game building on his display at the King Power and found himself in the inside left spaces where Matt Lowton simply didn’t want to go to mark him.
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The 32-year-old turned and then found Aubameyang in the space he had vacated on the left wing where the Gabon striker cut in and fired in a powerful low shot that Nick Pope perhaps should have done better with.
It was almost a perfect Mikel Arteta goal, with the ball transitioned from attack to defence in a matter of seconds, as Burnley could not handle the Gunners’ quick play.
It’s a sign of how defined Arteta’s commitment to playing out from the back is that his reaction after the ball went in was not to laud the finish of his star striker.
Instead he cupped his hand and began yelling “Bernd! Bernd!” before catching the German’s attention and congratulating him with a hearty thumbs up.
It was a sign of how, when done correctly playing out from the back can help to turn Arsenal into an efficient attacking side capable of rivalling the Manchester City side that Pep Guardiola’s apprentice is trying to replicate at the Emirates.
Playing out from the back fails
Sadly though it was not a sign of things to come.
While Arsenal showed all the good of playing out from the back, it didn’t take them long to show the bad and the very ugly too.
Leno was again involved, picking the ball up from a Pablo Mari pass with plenty of space inside his six yard box.
The German could have switched it right to David Luiz or even gone long given the intensity of the Burnley press, but instead he chose to rifle it at Granit Xhaka who was rushing goalwards with his back to play.
Xhaka did not have a good afternoon at Turf Moor (Image: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
The Swiss international then again had the option to play it first time to Luiz, but instead fired it straight into the hip of Chris Wood, with the ball bouncing in off the New Zealander.
Many managers would have been apoplectic with rage after such a costly error, but Arteta was pretty unapologetic in his defence of the team’s style of play after the match.
“It’s what it is,” he said. “It’s the way we play, it’s the way I want to play and we just have to know the risk and the rules that we have in certain areas and the types of balls we have to play. But it is what it is.”
“It looks easy from the outside but it’s not that easy on here,” he went on to add.
“If someone tries to make a mistake because they want to play, I will always support them. If someone is hiding and they don’t want to play and then makes a mistake I’m not going to have that.”
Xhaka will rightly take the blame for the situation and as Arteta said it is an operational hazard of the style of play he is trying to impress upon his Arsenal side.
Perhaps though, it would be more easy to be philosophical about the debacle if it had come during a victory, like the Swiss midfielder’s error at Leicester last week, than if it caused the Gunners to drop yet more points in a frustrating league season.
Arsenal pay for wasted chances
There can be no doubting that Arsenal should have had a penalty in this match.
The one they were awarded for a handball on the line by Erik Pieters was rightly overruled, but the Dutch left back’s handling of the ball in the box earlier in the match appeared to be much clearer in the eyes of Arteta.
Speaking after the game, the Arsenal boss simply couldn’t understand how referee Andre Marriner and video assistant referee Kevin Friend had not deemed it worthy of a spot kick.
“Absolutely,” he said when asked if it was a penalty.
Nicolas Pepe strikes the ball into Erik Pieters hand for what should have been a penalty for Arsenal
“I think it’s obvious and clear I think there is no debate about that.
“If that’s not a penalty I think somebody has to explain what is a penalty in this league.”
That said though, there is no way that the Gunners should have been needing to rely on a penalty going into the closing stages of the game.
Bukayo Saka, usually so clinical since his switch to the right, was probably the most guilty in this department, poking a left footed shot wide of the post on the edge of the six yard box after great link up with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and miscontrolling when played through later by the Gabon striker later in the match.
Nicolas Pepe also miscued when perfectly placed to fire home a Kieran Tierney cut back, while Dani Ceballos hit the post with nearly the last kick of the match.
It is the story of Arsenal’s season more or less that fine margins have come to define their dropped points due to an inability to be clinical when it counts.
On his social media after the game Aubameyang more or less articulated the problems the Gunners have been having perfectly by acknowledging the poor fortune with officiating calls, but placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of himself and his teammates for not having been further in front anyway.
“Let’s be honest VAR on the side, in this game when you produce chances as we did today we should [have] won this game,” he wrote.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks disappointed after Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Burnley
Arteta himself echoed the sentiments of his captain saying that what is separating Arsenal from the top sides is their efficiency in the final third.
“We have to be more ruthless,” he said.
“Because there are open situations that we created, one-vs-one situations, cut backs on the six yard box, we hit the bar, we hit the post, we had a shot blocked when their ‘keeper was beaten, but it is what it is.”
It has been the story of the Gunners’ season, and it was that only more time will be able to re-write.
Pressure on Olympiacos
Looking ahead for what remains of the season now and it seems as though Arsenal’s eggs may officially have to be placed in the Europa League basket.
By the end of this weekend it is possible that they will be 10 points off the top six and 12 points off the top four.
Yes, the teams above them have been inconsistent, but when it comes to qualifying for Europe through the Premier League, it seems that the jig is well and truly up.
Thursday night’s round of 16 first leg against Olympiacos was always going to be massive for determining the Gunners fortunes this season, but now it seems more so than ever.
If Arsenal are looking at the teams remaining in the Europa League this season they really should be backing themselves to go far in the competition, and that starts with a victory in the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium this week.
Of course Mikel Arteta was not going to admit this in full, but even he was forced to concede slightly after this match that the game in Greece was going to one of the biggest of his managerial career.
“We have that pressure,” he said.
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“We have the pressure of representing this club and what it means in any competition that we play we have to win it regardless of what we are doing in any other competition.
“Obviously, we know that Thursday is a massive game for us.”
There are no more get out of jail free cards if they want to secure European football next season. Arsenal’s season is now pretty much win the Europa League or bust.