Arsenal vs Stoke Burnley
Leno – 7
Given his woes at Southampton last week in regards to coming for crosses and corners, I was heartened to see the confidence of the German keeper did not appear dampened. In the spells of pressure Burnley showed in the second half, he showed bravery to bounce back from his previous display. Claiming early crosses, his improved aerial stability provided calm amongst a changing, make-shift defence, who themselves were not afforded the protection Emery would have hoped for.
Maitland-Niles – 6.5
The young Englishman’s return from injury could not have come at a better time for the Gunners. Successfully deputising as a right back, then right wing back, following Hector Bellerin’s injury in the previous outing, it is easy to forget he is naturally a midfielder, and was required to start in the League Cup defeat against Spurs in midweek. Occasionally he can appear too assured on the ball, resulting in careless mistakes and lapses in concentration that will cost Arsenal against superior opposition. But, as a young player playing out of position, I would rather that than one who looks like Bambi on ice. He obviously has work to do defensively, but he showed enough going forward to make me feel he will be able to challenge Guendouzi for a midfield spot, once his services at right back are no longer needed.
Sokratis – 8 (Moral Man of the Match)
With every passing game, I feel stupider and stupider for doubting the Greek defender at the start of the season. Himself back from a recent knock, and asked to martial the defence, he lead the cobbled together, motley crew outstandingly. Starting in a back 4, he was the only player in his natural position alongside an ageing left back in the middle, a wingback on the left, and a midfielder on the right. Yet Sokratis kept cool in a heated atmosphere, and continued to do so with the switch to a back 5. Oh yeah, and then he only had to control a slow central midfielder and an ancient right back as his partners in the central defence. Perhaps most pleasingly of all, certainly from a fan’s perspective, was his ongoing battle with Ashley Barnes. SO many times have I seen opposition striker turn up at the Emirates, and physically wear down the Arsenal centre backs, and the groans echo around the upper tier after every challenge. Not this time. I thought the Austrian foul merchant was fortunate not to see a second yellow on more than one occasion, but Sokratis did not rise and actively stoked the strikers rage. His yellow card was a perfect example of this ‘shit-housery’, grabbing Barnes and holding him back on the break, knowing the punishment he would receive even before Kevin Friend did. 11/11 clearances, 100% aerial success – A proper, old school style performance, the likes of which I have sorely missed.
Monreal – 6.5
There is little really to say about Monreal’s performance, and that is perhaps the most worrying aspect of the match. Ageing as he is, I was pleasantly surprised with his brief cameo as a central defender in a back 4 at the start of the game. Arsenal fans have seen him play on the left side of a defensive 3 many times, but this was a rare outing in this exact position. I think it might suit him more and more, as age appears to be starting to catch up with the Spaniard if he is ever isolated one-on-one. His timing in the tackle is something that has always been superb, and he displayed again with a couple of strong headers to clear danger. Walking straight down the tunnel, familiar murmurs of concern echoed around the stands, and the angst on Emery’s face could be seen for miles.
Kolasinac – 8.5
To paraphrase Jamie Redknapp, ‘oh he is literally a wide man, Geoff’. I’ve had my issues with Kolasinac this season, and I’m not going to pretend I still don’t have concerns over his defensive abilities; but in a backline more patchwork than your nan’s quilt, picking holes in that aspect seems trite. This was undoubtedly his best performance of the season. Not only did his attacking proficiency in the first half, but he appeared to be able to maintain the level of performance deep into the game. Even prior to the injury he picked up this season, his Arsenal career has been one marked by second half drop offs; evident in his body type, he’s clearly not an endurance runner. If he has been able to add improved fitness to his threat in the opposition’s third, his offensive output will only improve. Perhaps what impressed me most of all was his defensive improvements. Starting as we did in a back four, I worried about the potential exposure of the left flank, and towering above in my lofty perch, my fears were never really realised. Kolasinac steamed into challenges with all the vigour you’d expect, except most of the time he actually won the ball. He tracked back with enthusiasm, exemplified by the shoulder barge to knock Jack Cork to the floor and prevent a Burnley counter. I hope the central defenders return from the sick bay soon, because if Arsenal are able to consistently play him as a wing back, we could see an Alonso-esque return of assists and goal from the Bosnian Beast.
Guendouzi – 6.5
Before I touch on the Frenchman’s performance, it is always worth caveating any assessment of him with the fact that this is his first full season in professional football, in any league, in any division. He had a few appearances in the French second tier before Arsenal signed him from under the nose of PSG this Summer, and the maturity and poise on the ball he shows for someone so inexperienced is astounding. The faith the management has in Guendouzi is clear, and his improved consistency is starting to repay them. Starting and playing 90 minutes is a big thing for the youngster at this stage of his Arsenal career. His passing range develops every week, and he seems to have added the ability to progress the ball on the counter in Xhaka’s absence in midfield that was vital once the Swiss captain moved into defence. Although this dampened his statistical output, completing only 83% of his passes, the value of those he did complete was worth it; 100% completion is easy when all your attempts are safe *cough Elneny cough*. Another solid performance from Guendouzi, who’s physical adaptation to the Premier League is a positive sign for the future.
Xhaka – 7
Foul fanatic, yellow card merchant, reversing dump-truck impersonator, turning circle the death star would be ashamed of – these are all ways I described Xhaka last season. Thankfully this article is the only record of that, because I was not nearly as active on twitter a year ago as I am now. Therefore, we can keep my previous ‘dissatisfaction’ with Xhaka a secret, and can pretend I have always been a fan. Few players in the Premier League can switch between central midfield and central defence in the same game, particularly few in the mould of player that Xhaka is. He is not a combative, stopper in the mould of Eric Dier or Nemanja Matic. He is a self-described ‘false ten’, preferring to be the key progressing presence of the ball from deep, picking up from the centre backs and starting off attacks. Perhaps the biggest testament to his quality is how comparatively poor the midfield control looks when he isn’t there. Without Xhaka, the spacing is all over the place. Not just between the midfielders, but the gaps left to the attacking and defensive thirds was one of the key factors behind the Burnley resurgence in the second half. I think it is one of the reasons why Arsenal tend to concede sloppy goals, which is confounded by the lack of familiarity in the back line. He was perfectly adequate after his positional switch, but I think he should be graded on a curve in that regard. One of Arsenal’s key players this season, and his partnership with Torreira is vital in the challenge for Champions League.
Elneny – 6
I was shocked to see this was Elneny’s first Premier League start of the season. As someone who deputised as a centre back late last season, you’d have thought he would have been needed more in the current injury-hit Arsenal side. Perhaps indicative of his uncertain place in the squad, he put in a perfectly fine performance. At times it seemed to me that the fact he wears the number 4 shirt (which as a Cesc lover hurts me deeply) meant he felt a responsibility to play like the great players of Arsenal-past who have worn it previously. Sadly for Arsenal, the Egyptian is neither Fabregas nor Vieira, and when disposed easily in the first half he looked more like Mertesacker. Yet, completing 100% of his passes, I find it difficult to pick too much wrong with his performance, and with Elneny as a player. He strikers me as someone who would stand out for better in a mid-table side, but who’s frailties would be exposed if he were a regular starter at any of the top 5 clubs. The definitive 6/10 performance, by the definitive 6/10 player.
Ozil – 7.5
If the comments made after the derby defeat to Spurs in midweek were designed to provoke Ozil to respond, he certainly did so with aplomb. There are few players in the world with the vision (insert eye joke here) of the German, and it was on full display with his sumptuous pass for the first goal. The fact that he is able to make it looks so easy tells you just how hard it is. The ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowd as it was replayed on the big screens were a welcome return to replace the ‘boos’ and the ‘arghs’ his more recent performances have elicited. He is often criticised for strolling about in the game, but ironically it was a leisurely dribble into Burnley’s box that created the goal that sealed the victory for Arsenal. It was these two moments that were crucial in getting the 3 points, but these were the only two moments of note for him in the game. That’s part of the problem. When you pay a player £350,000 a week, you expect him to produce quality throughout the 90 minutes on a weekly basis; you can’t afford to be satisfied when your highest paid player becomes a human vine compilation. His touches of class will by him time, and show he is still an extremely valuable player for Arsenal, but if anything they make the times when he loses the ball, shrugs his shoulders as a teammate is disposed, and ambles back to defend even more infuriating. When you’re used to filet mignon, its kind of hard to go back to hamburgers.
Aubameyang – 8.5
Probably the most natural, lethal finisher I have ever seen play at the Emirates. 3 shots, 2 on target, 2 goals: his conversion rate continues to amaze me, to the point where the debate about him over-performing his xG has become completely irrelevant in my eyes. After flitting in and out of the starting XI at the beginning of the season, consecutive 90 minutes show Emery’s faith in Aubameyang, and he is being repaid handsomely. I personally feel he is a shoe-in for the Golden Boot, and I think he is hungry to prove that he should be played centrally. Although he always gamely worked hard on the flanks, his body language was never quite as optimistic and positive as it is when he is down the middle. Although some places have him lined as on the left, the partnership between him and Lacazette is such that they rotate fluidly, to the benefit of both. The way they dovetail proves that the Instagram, off-field relationship they have translates onto the pitch; every time one receives the ball, their head is up glancing for the other. People concerned about his lack of involvement confuse me, because he is not a high-touch player. Unlike Lacazette, who is keen to involve himself in the build up, the Gabonese striker thrives on good service. This can leave him ‘peripheral’ if those behind him are off stride, but even against Burnley he had fewer touches than all but 2 of the Arsenal players. Do not expect him to be heavily involved, because you will only be disappointed. For me, he is the most natural goal scorer in the Premier League, and his mini drought of 5 matches came to an end in style.
Lacazette – 7
A subtly adept performance from the Frenchman, providing an assist for his partner-in crime. He was very frustrated to be substituted, but I think he was a victim of circumstance rather than his withdrawal reflecting badly on his performance. Registering an impressive 2 key passes when you compare the number of touches he had to his teammates (just 41), when he drops deep he opens up the space for others to run beyond. Like a more mobile Giroud, he is playing for the benefit of others at the moment, which is why, although the goals may have dried up, he is still contributing important moments, and having a good goal-involvement. I think a barrage of goals are on the horizon with some more favourable fixtures in the near future, and I hope the reaction to his substitution is not blown out of proportion. I would always rather a player angry he could not have done more, and frustrated with his own performance, than relieved to be hooked off. His close control is extremely underrated, his physicality often overlooked, and as soon as he regains his goal-scoring form, Lacazette’s jovial swagger will be back. (Side note – If Arsenal get a penalty at Brighton, and he is on the pitch, expect him to take it).
Torreira – 7 -> Won all of his tackles, but when he came on it was hard for him to affect the game too positively due to the lack of midfield control. A typically robust performance.
Iwobi – 6.5 -> Important for his confidence to get a goal after a few less impressive performances. Still showed the erratic touch of old, but I think this will bode well for the next couple of games.
Lichsteiner – 6.5 -> The definition of miserly defender, the Swiss is nominally a right back, but given his age I actually prefer him on the right of a defensive 3. Perfectly adequate cover for the immediate short term, but I’m already scared of the prospect of Salah and friends running at his weary legs.