Saturday was a good day for Arsenal. Liverpool were downed by a Swansea team who worked out that sticking the ball on Llorente’s forehead was pretty effective. United dropped two points at Stoke. Then City and Spurs played out an entertaining 2-2 draw where Sterling was anything but in front of goal and the miraculous arrival of Jesus was spoiled by the linesman. Defeating Burnley on Sunday would see Arsenal move up to second and become Chelsea’s closest challengers.
The game, as it turned out, wasn’t straightforward for Arsenal. Burnley, as Thierry Henry put it, played 10 at the back and hoped that sheer weight of numbers would keep Arsenal out. Arsenal’s brand of football was hypnotic, in that it compelled me to take a nap. Their tendency to force the play through the middle, only to lump the ball in towards Giroud when they couldn’t find a way through, was predictable and easy to defend. At the other end of the field, Andre Gray didn’t enjoy chasing Koscielny to long balls. The Emirates crowd murmured their discontent in between the frequent reminders of what they thought of Tottenham.
Arsenal increased their tempo in the second half and strained Burnley’s back 10. As per usual when Arsenal are trying to break a wall down, Monreal made more frequent overlaps, while Ozil moved to the right to swing in crosses. Burnley were forced into conceding more corners and it was from one such corner that Arsenal finally breached the Burnley wall. Ozil’s in swinger was glanced into the far corner by Shkodran Mustafi, the man with a name nobody ever pronounces correctly. With a good chunk of the second half still to play, everyone expected Arsenal to wrap up the points.
Then Granit Xhaka happened.
Xhaka is a very talented player. He has a wonderful range of passing and dictates the play for Arsenal. However, the Swiss’ take on defending is a little eccentric. It’s reminiscent of a bored FIFA player deciding to mash square and take out every player on the pitch so there are six red cards. His habit of diving into tackles would have been appreciated in the 80s, but these days a player simply can’t lunge in two footed on people. Granit saw red and cemented his place as the thickest midfielder in the Premier League.
Burnley’s response to this was to bombard the dishevelled Arsenal backline with long balls and crosses. Wenger settled on the one goal lead and sent on Bellerin and Coquelin to shore up the defence, effectively playing 5-2-2. Coquelin cocked it up when he stuck out a careless left leg and encouraged the Burnley player to flop over it. Andre Gray stepped up and hammered it down the middle to draw Burnley level. Wenger exploded on the touchline and gave the 4th Official a dainty shove. The commentators gave Arsenal’s title challenge the death sentence. The Emirates choir practiced their best boos.
Then Premier League refereeing happened.
Inconsistent is the kindest way to describe Premier League refereeing. Arsenal flew up the other end searching for a winner and swung the ball in towards the back post. Koscielny, a good couple yards offside, stretched his neck to get his head on the cross. His face connected with the high boot of the Burnley defender. Penalty Arsenal. Burnley were rightly furious that the linesman failed to spot a straightforward offside. Arsenal were delighted that their title challenge could continue for another two weeks at least.
It fell to the star man to put the penalty away. Alexis, fully aware that his beloved pups Atom and Humber were watching him from the terraces, Panenka’d it down the middle. A chaotic end to the match saw Arsenal secure a big win and move up into second place. Burnley will be feeling that losing to Arsenal this season must be fate.
When the dust settles and the euphoria of a late win passes, I’m sure Arsenal will feel they got away with it. But they’re hanging on in the title race. At least until Chelsea beat them at Stamford Bridge in two weeks’ time.