All four sides of Turf Moor applauded Arsène Wenger in recognition of reaching 20 years as Arsenal manager as he walked across the pitch before kick-off. Only one side applauded Wenger’s exit and his response – a sheepish wave from hip-height – said everything about an anniversary where the most important gifts arrived courtesy of the match officials.
The legitimacy and merits of Arsenal’s 93rd-minute winner at Burnley naturally shaped the post-match analysis with Sean Dyche reflecting the home team’s despair and Wenger the visitors’ great fortune. Laurent Koscielny’s goal, his raised arm applying the final touch from close range after Burnley had switched off at a corner, may have been entirely out of context with the style Wenger has maintained over two decades at Arsenal. But it was perfectly in keeping with a scrappy, error-strewn display in front of goal at Turf Moor. Wenger acknowledged the helping touch without which Arsenal would not have gained a fifth successive Premier League victory. When the controversy settles, and it may take a while, his team must recognise the importance of the reprieve and rediscover the precision, the purpose and the menace that was painfully lacking against Burnley.
“It was a big win,” said Wenger on his team’ rise to third. “We were five points behind Manchester City, they are a quality side. When you have an opportunity to close the gap on them, you cannot miss it. That would have been the negative from the game had we not won. I am long enough in the job to know that you will be disappointed if you are in Burnley’s shoes. They will be gutted to lose the game like that for all the effort they put in.”
Had Wenger wanted to promote the positives – and he resisted on Sunday – he could have highlighted the late surge of pressure that had Burnley supporters fearing the worst moments before Alexis Sánchez collected Mesut Özil’s short corner unopposed and centred ahead of the winner. Arsenal persevered in the face of strong, composed Burnley defending and their own shortcomings in the final third. Özil was on the margins throughout, Sánchez searched constantly for a way through and was thwarted frequently, while Theo Walcott was unable to reproduce his recent incisive form. But there was a resilience to Arsenal in both their mentality and in their approach that Wenger can also take reassurance from.
It said much about a slow-burning contest that Shkodran Mustafi’s confrontation with the Burnley striker Sam Vokes was often the most compelling aspect of a game that promised much until the ball reached the final third – much like the Arsenal performance. The visitors dominated possession but did not create a chance of note until Sánchez tested Tom Heaton early in the second half. Too often a telegraphed last pass from Sánchez or Özil was easily intercepted by the Burnley defence, where Michael Keane and Matthew Lowton again impressed in a team that appears far better equipped for the rigours of a Premier League campaign than in 2014-15.
For all the added guile that Jeff Hendrick and Steven Defour have brought to Burnley’s midfield, however, the long get-out ball to Vokes remains the most trusted weapon for Dyche’s side against opponents of Arsenal’s calibre. And it will have reassured the travelling thousands in the David Fishwick Stand to witness an Arsenal centre-half revelling in a physical fight against the Wales international instead of pleading for protection from the referee at every opportunity.
Mustafi should have been booked for one first-half outburst towards Craig Pawson when, having been penalised for a foul on Vokes despite the striker holding his shirt and backing in, he repeated the action into the referee’s midriff. The centre-half was also less than impressed with Pawson after receiving an accidental elbow to the face from the towering centre-forward that required medical attention late on. Otherwise the £35m signing from Valencia thrived on a relentless duel with the Burnley centre-forward.
Both players had their individual successes and it was notable how many aerial challenges the defender won despite his disadvantage in height. The Germany international timed his leaps impressively, always looking to find an Arsenal shirt with the header as he did so, marshalled the back-line and was strong when going to ground against Vokes. Mustafi earned an ovation from the visiting supporters for a thunderous tackle on the Burnley forward that took the ball and man and won a throw-in. He responded with a knowing nod in their direction.
Such precision was painfully lacking from the Arsenal attack. The swift, incisive cuts inflicted on Chelsea and Basel were replaced by a methodical and often careless display. Burnley’s defence dealt comfortably with Arsenal’s repeated attempts to pick a way through and could have provided the base for another eye-catching home win but for Petr Cech’s vital save from Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s header and Keane hitting the crossbar with a towering header from the Iceland international’s corner.
Arsenal were restricted to half chances with Walcott deflecting a shot wide early on and Sánchez volleying against the outside of a post before the most fortunate reprieve. Wenger will accept it.
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