In the battle for the top four, Arsenal have a significant advantage over most of their rivals: the absence of Champions League football. Without the need to field their best XI twice a week, the Gunners are able to approach the Premier League with freshness and focus. Both qualities will be required if they’re to overcome an impressive Burnley side this weekend — Sean Dyche’s men are the surprise package of the division thus far.
That’s certainly how Arsene Wenger feels about his next opponent. Speaking to the media on Friday, Wenger said: “Of course they are the surprise package, because if you asked before the season 100 people ‘Will Burnley have 22 points at this stage in the season?’ 90 would have said no and the 10 others would have been Burnley supporters.”
However, perhaps that tag is doing them down a little. Burnley’s success shouldn’t be a complete shock: Dyche is an accomplished coach who has steadily turned the Clarets into a robust Premier League outfit. They’ve already taken points off Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool this season — and now Dyche will have his sights set on Arsenal.
The Gunners may come into this game off the back of a 1-0 defeat against Koln, but that result will surely have little bearing this weekend. First of all, the match was essentially meaningless — results elsewhere meant that Arsenal actually won the group in spite of their defeat at the RheinEnergieStadion.
Moreover, it will be a completely different XI that takes to the field on Sunday. Wenger will revert to deploying his “Premier League team,” and that’s a lineup whose confidence must be riding high after securing an impressive derby win over Tottenham last week.
The paucity of quality on display in Germany underlined the gap between Wenger’s best team and second string. The Arsenal boss will be hoping his preferred XI will be able to pick up where they left off at Turf Moor.
Arsenal and Burnley lie in sixth and seventh, respectively, although only the former are realistically hoping to push on and claim a top-four spot. The five teams above Arsenal all have Champions League football to contend with, and that split focus might well have an influence on their Premier League matches this weekend. Arsenal do not have that excuse — they’ve made it absolutely clear that they regard the Europa League as a second-rate competition. Come Sunday afternoon, they should have fresh legs and a clear mind.
That’s not to say they have an easy task ahead. Burnley are on a run of three consecutive top-flight wins — their best sequence since 1975. Their last nine league matches have seen them produce six clean sheets. Even if Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil can reproduce the sparkling form that saw off Spurs, they are likely to be met with stern resistance. Wenger is anticipating a fierce battle from a team who seem capable of producing positive results without dominating games:
“Turf Moor is a very difficult place for everybody,” Wenger said. “I believe that their capacity to be efficient with restricted possession as well. You know they’ve won games with 30, 25 percent possession — that means they know what they want to do and are patient to have that killing instinct of a snake. They put you to that pace and suddenly they bite you.”
The efficiency demonstrated by Burnley is one of the qualities Arsenal have lacked most in recent seasons. However, against Tottenham a ruthless break finally emerged. The Gunners will need to be every bit as sharp if they’re to return from Lancashire with a precious three points.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.