Monday, October 3, 2016

Controversial, scrappy, but a victory

After such an excellent week, it shouldn’t really have been a surprise that Arsenal couldn’t hit the heights of the victories against Chelsea and Basel in the league at Turf Moor on Sunday. The Gunners mentally and physically couldn’t put together the same performance that had blown the other sides away, and in Burnley, they came up against a completely different style of team as Sean Dyche’s men were determined to stop Arsenal from playing. 
Whereas in the last two games there had been space for Arsenal to play passes in behind the defence, and there had been space in front of the defensive line to rip the opposition apart, Burnley completely shut that down. Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi couldn’t glide into the spaces they had before and Alexis and Theo Walcott didn’t have the space behind the back four to run into. Without a plan B with Olivier Giroud still nursing the suspect toe injury, Arsenal looked to be running out of ideas of how to break Burnley down. There wasn’t much point throwing crosses into the box because of the dominance of the home centre-backs, and there was barely any space for intricate passes through the lines. 
After 92 minutes of frustration, Arsenal somehow found a way to score the winning goal with a combination of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscielny bundling the ball over the line. Arsenal have scored some beautiful, free-flowing team goals and some scorching long-rangers in recent weeks. This one didn’t fall into those categories. It was ugly and horrifically scrappy, but it was a match winner.
If I was a Burnley fan, I would be fuming about the goal being given because Koscielny struck the ball into his arm for it to bobble underneath Heaton. Arsenal definitely benefitted from the vague handball rule as Koscielny obviously didn’t intent to use his arm in that situation, but the ball would never had gone in had it not ricocheted off the forearm. Hopefully the Gunners haven’t used up a large slice of this season’s luck in one incident, but I don’t think we could have had many complaints had the referee disallowed the goal. But as harsh as it looked, the referee made the correct call. 
The goal was harsh on the hosts as Burnley did nullify Arsenal’s threat. They learned from the mistakes Watford, Hull and Chelsea have made against the Gunners this season. Having beaten Liverpool with a similar performance earlier in the campaign, it was a concern pre-match that Burnley had the blueprint to get a home victory and weren’t going to be intimidated by the week Arsenal had had. For 92 minutes, Sean Dyche’s team executed their plan perfectly. 
Even though Arsenal were some way from their best, I don’t think it’s a game that requires much over-analysis for the Gunners. There were plenty of reasons for it to be a tricky assignment for Arsenal because of the decent start Burnley have made to the campaign, and it is always tough to go away from home after a midweek game in the Champions League. The home fans were up for it and their team were well organised, so Arsenal just had to find a way to win.
Had the Gunners drawn the game, doubts and questions about their ability to last the distance in the title race this season would have been raised again. The critics would point to a free-flowing victories followed by needlessly dropping points against the lesser-teams. But there is a growing sense that the squad this year has got a little bit more to it. They are a bit smarter and more determined and seem to have the bit between their teeth at the moment. The speed of thought was evident in the winning goal on Sunday as most sides would never have taken a short corner with time almost up and the game level. But Ozil and Alexis recognised Burnley had switched off defensively and gave the Chilean a better angle from which to cross it. The short corner disrupted Burnley’s organisation and suddenly Arsenal had two players who had gambled and followed the ball in to try and score. I was ready to lambast Ozil and Alexis for playing the short corner, but it worked. That is one of the many reasons why they are elite level players and I am definitely not. 
The win was Arsenal’s fifth in a row in the league. In that run, there’s been a mixture of performances as three have been fairly comprehensive with three goals against Watford and Chelsea and four against Hull, while the games against Southampton and Burnley were only sealed with injury time winners. It’s encouraging to see that Arsenal are capable of being brilliant but also win matches that turn into dogged battles. The campaign is still young, but with a run of winnable fixtures, the Gunners have a chance continue with the momentum gathered so far. It may have needed the unintentional hand of Koscielny to keep it rolling, but getting a break like that goal just increases the good feeling I’ve got for the rest of the season.