Arsenal may have got back to winning ways in the Premier League last weekend but a 2-0 victory over Sunderland contained little to remove concerns over what has been a disappointing start to the season. Fifth place is far from a disaster at this stage, but just three wins from nine games and already a nine-point gap to leaders Chelsea mean hopes of a first Premier League title in more than a decade are already becoming fanciful.
The issues have been all-too familiar: a lack of adequate planning in the transfer market has been compounded by a flurry of injuries. The problems have come particularly in a defense that was left short on numbers after the ins and outs over the summer. With Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny injured, Nacho Monreal has filled in at center-back alongside Per Mertesacker. With the former clearly ill at ease in his new position and the latter lacking his consistency of last season, Arsenal have looked brittle at the back. Things could get worse on Saturday with Kieran Gibbs a major doubt with a hip injury. The situation has not been helped by the continued failure to recruit a dominant midfielder without the ball, something the fine performances of former Gunner Alex Song, on loan at West Ham, have brought into sharper focus.
Column inches in England have again seen a rise in discussion about who should replace Arsène Wenger and whether that changeover should happen sooner rather than later. Despite lifting the FA Cup in May, Wenger badly needs to shake the impression that they are continuing to tread water. Consistently finishing in the top four was easy to spin as a success when the purse strings were tied, but the club is now competing on a level footing with the likes of Chelsea both in transfer fees and wages.
Fortunately Saturday’s visitors to the Emirates are unlikely to worsen Wenger’s predicament and should provide a perfect opportunity for Arsenal to rediscover their form. After their surprise promotion last season, meagerly funded Burnley are so far living up to pre-season predictions and sit bottom of the Premier League without a win. Most worryingly for manager Sean Dyche will be the way that the team’s solid base has now gone by the wayside. While goal-scoring has predictably been a problem since the start, Burnley were at least a difficult nut to crack early in the campaign. Through five games they conceded just four goals, including three successive goalless draws. But the Lancashire club’s last four games have seen them ship a massive 12 goals.
While it would be harsh in the extreme were he to pay for the poor start with his job, the current scenario has hardly provided an ideal way for Dyche to celebrate his two-year anniversary in charge. Arsenal should inflict further pain on Saturday, having shown again recently when Galatasaray visited in the Champions League that when coming going up against teams with a porous defense they can be devastating.
Yet in recent matches the attacking fluidity that even during the bad times was a hallmark of Arsenal’s play has gone missing. Against Anderlecht it took two late goals to get a win and at the Stadium of Light only two horrendous errors from Sunderland allowed Arsenal get on the score sheet. It was no coincidence that Alexis Sánchez was the benefactor from both mistakes, with the Chilean again showing the kind of intensity both with and without the ball that too many of his teammates lack. The big summer signing from Barcelona now has seven goals and one has to wonder how much worse off Arsenal would be without him. Reports about Sanchez’s frustration with some of his teammates are likely overblown, but his repeated ushering for his teammates to press the opposition is clear to see.
Arsenal’s passing, which has been unusually errant of late, should be helped by the return from suspension of Jack Wilshere. The Saturday match with Burnley could also see the first competitive minutes in nine months for Theo Walcott after he returned to the substitute’s bench last week. With too much of Arsenal’s play going through the middle, Arsenal could do with the England international’s pace out wide, although it is likely to take him some time to get up to speed.
It remains to be seen how long it will take for Arsenal to get back into top gear, but even in second gear Wenger’s men should avoid losing further ground at the top of the table against struggling Burnley.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-0 Burnley
Kickoff time: 11 AM ET
TV channel: NBC Premier League Extra Time
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra