Feeling the Burn
In the wake of Sunday`s win at Stamford Bridge, I was inundated with text messages from people exclaiming how fortunate I had been to be present. My stock response to this kind of assertion is usually that nobody ever tells me how lucky I am to witness aberrations at Stoke and in Manchester. Well, nobody`s told me I was lucky to be present last evening either! Having left my office in London a touch before midday, the weather was crisp but reasonably mild for a December`s day, but reports suggested sub zero temperatures and a fine dusting of snow in Lancashire. Our coach driver was informed of problems abound on the M11 whilst some of us speculated as to whether the match would be called off a la Anfield two years ago. However, the journey North was problem free and precipitation free. In fact, the only time we saw any snow was when we turned off the motorway into the sloping hills of Burnley, where a carpet of snow blanketed the ground underfoot.
Seating was unreserved in the David Fishwick Stand, so most of us huddled together like penguins centrally behind the goal, a fine array of headwear was on offer and the sound of gloved hands thumping together was apparent whenever applause broke out. The home fans were packed to the rafters, which had not been the case in January in the F.A. Cup. Perhaps the locals scented the blood of our younger charges, perhaps they thought they were more worth watching than the more senior side? What was clear was that this would be a different challenge for our insouciant youths than that posed by Sheffield United and Wigan. Mikael Silvestre was bought into the centre of defence to offset the inexperience of Rodgers. Unfortunately, both players played like panicky teenagers. In Rodgers case, that is forgivable, but Silvestre was woeful and if Wenger was looking for a steadying hand to steer the ship, then Silvestre let him down woefully. Firstly, his defending wasn`t up to much, in possession he panicked like an adolescent and contrived to either play his young midfielders into trouble or just thump the ball aimlessly down field. Johan Djourou must have been looking on the bright side last night.
Burnley pressed Arsenal in possession early on, but in Caldwell and Carlisle they did not possess the quickest centre halves, in pressing the game the home defence played a high line which the Gunners looked to exploit. Randall attempted a through ball to Bendtner which had Jensen scurrying off his line, before Bendtner did trundle his way through on goal from Ramey`s pass, only to be blocked by the imposing figure of Brian Jensen. Sixty seconds later, Nicklas` poor finish was punished in full. McCann and Eagles combined on the left to work an angle past the prone Kieran Gibbs, Eagles sent in a low cross which Fabianski sprawled to palm away, but with Silvestre not covering his front post, the ball trickled to the feet of Kevin McDonald who was tasked with stroking Burnley into a sixth minute lead. The youngsters` response was positive; Randall`s high ball was flicked on deftly by Vela for Bendtner, who again smuggled his way into the box only to fire straight at Jensen`s legs again. If the boy has first team aspirations, he is going to have to be more clinical than that. In the F.A. Cup tie in January, Eduardo was given a similar chance after five minutes. I don`t need to tell you he buried it. (Though he did uncharacteristically miss one later in the game). Fran Merida drew a brief intake of breath, visible as it was in the biting December air, when he brilliantly juggled the ball on the edge of the area, swivelled and volleyed straight at Jensen. Palms were once again warmed to the sound of applause.
Burnley got on top of the game after that, with chances squandered, the home side did not play such a high line and squeezed Arsenal even more in midfield. Eagles and Blake began to give Arsenal`s backline food for thought, with Rodgers looking nervy and Silvestre hardly helping. Eagles again worked an angle between Silvestre and Gibbs but the on form Patersen found his shot saved by Fabianski`s feet. But Arsenal squirmed their way back into the reckoning, Ramsey found Bendtner with his back to goal, the Dane produced a nonchalant flick into the path of Randall who careered clear of the Clarets defence, only to find his truly struck shot beaten out by Jensen again. (Bendtner attempted that back heel flick 3,189 times thereafter, it didn`t come off again). Minutes before half time, Bendtner played Vela through again, he cut across Caldwell, showing excellent body strength, but having expended so much energy swatting Caldwell like a troublesome fly, his finish was weak and Jensen was out smartly to deny Arsenal for the umpteenth time. Half time and you felt there was plenty to play for, the attacking approach of both teams were combustible elements providing warmth for chattering teeth on the terraces. It was a very watchable game.
The away side redoubled their determination at the beginning of the second half; Fran Merida performed a delightful jinking run from the left, slaloming between four Burnley defenders before sending a curling shot just wide of the far post. You just knew it wasn`t going to be our night. That sense of foreboding was multiplied minutes later. Michael Duff took a quick throw in which inexplicably caught Silvestre napping, not acceptable for a player of his experience. Randall appeared to have it covered but, in keeping with his general demeanour throughout the game, he was far too casual and Kevin McDonald bundled past him, before despatching an impressive finish with the outside of his right foot. The sort of clinical finishing we were desperately missing and a lapse of concentration from our most experienced player. Randall`s aberration as well as the lacklustre finishing revealed a tiny bit of arrogance in the performance, Wenger is a master at building a player`s confidence, often that can spill over into arrogance as has been a slightly uncomfortable trend in his reign. I thought I could detect a subtle hint of it last night, missing four one on ones isn`t bad luck, it`s psychological.
From there on, Arsenal never looked like getting back into the game; Burnley had an extra bite in the tackle and closed Arsenal down in midfield ravenously. Ramsey was denied any space and our last opportunity went when Wenger took off Wilshere who looked the only player with the guile and turn of pace to negotiate the travails of a packed defence. Though Jay Simpson did power through from the right for a shot straight at Jensen. Somebody who saw the game on television may correct my myopia, but I felt Steven Jordan handled the ball needlessly inside the area, but maybe it was an optimistic optical illusion on my part? The Clarets may have extended their lead when Robbie Blake beat Lansbury at right back, sent a floating cross over to Patersen, but his header was brilliantly saved by Fabianski, clawing the ball away from his goal line. Arsenal produced one last chance, Vela, who had looked somewhat nonplussed by the conditions, capitalised on a slip by Caldwell on Arsenal`s right, Vela fed off the scraps, put in a low cross for Bendtner, whose posture and effort left a lot to be desired throughout, casually tried to dink the ball over Jensen only to see the imposing keeper block again and the rebound spilled off Bendtner`s chest and over the bar into the away fans. It wasn`t our night, but as I said earlier, missing a host of gilt edged chances does not arise through bad luck; there was a slight mental weakness.
It`s perhaps significant that the most widely touted triumvirate of our starlets, Wilshere, Vela and Ramsey, were slightly off colour. Though that is in large part due to Burnley`s effectiveness in closing us down and pressing our players on the ball. We had our chances when Burnley were playing a high line, but a lack of killer instinct will always see you punished. It was a good education for our kids, they just couldn`t find a different solution once the Clarets backline sat deeper and the midfield pushed us higher up the pitch. My only real disappointments were Silvestre, who looked the most nervous player on the pitch and Bendtner, who gave the impression that he thought the game was beneath him. A with first team aspirations should be performing better. He did create chances for others and found two for himself, which showed that in the rare occasions he was switched on he had the ability to make a difference. But the caveat of holding the ball far too long can be assigned to Bendtner as well as any number of players this season. Hopefully the tiny hint of complacency I detected will have been shaken out of them by this defeat and hopefully, the jewels in the crown will get a further chance against Plymouth. But in closing, one has to pay tribute to Burnley, though I took great umbrage at their "are you Chelsea in disguise?" chant. It doesn`t get much more insulting.LD.