As the 93rd minute was ticking away, I was thinking of how great a last-minute winner could be. This unique feeling of snatching the win when the draw is staring you in the face. Nothing compares to it. The guys behind me in the pub were having a good time, mostly because they were watching golf, but their joy, however prolonged and genuine, is nothing next to a last-gasp winner in football. Or maybe I just don’t know much about golf.
94th minute started and we played the short corner. I started to get out of my chair, expecting the ref to blow the whistle any second. Who takes a short corner when you need a win? Why test the ref’s patience? But maybe the thinking behind it was simple – our corners are generally crap and can’t beat the first man.
Then Sanchez crossed the ball, someone (later it became clear that someone was Walcott) flicked it towards the back post and there were two Arsenal players on it, unmarked. Oxlade took the shot on the volley, Kos got in the way and for a moment I thought this was it. That we spurned the best chance we had all game in an unbelievably silly fashion.
And then … the ball ended up in the back of the net. It rebounded off Koscielny and went in. It wasn’t pretty at all, the ball definitely hit Koscielny’s hand on the way in, but it didn’t matter, because Craig Pawson pointed to the centre. 1-0 to the Arsenal.
As someone pointed out later on Twitter: “How ironic it is that on Arsene’s 20th anniversary the team won the game in typical George Graham’s style”. A scrappy 1-0. Koscielny once again being in the right place at the right time. Goal vs Newcastle in 2013. The equaliser vs Hull a year later. Jammy winner in January 2016, again with Newcastle being on the receiving end. And now the winner at Turf Moor.
A winner we don’t how important in the grand scheme of things yet. But one really important on the day. Spurs inflicted Pep’s first defeat in the Premier League just hours earlier, so a win was absolutely crucial to bridge the gap. And win we did. Now Arsenal sit in 3rd, a point behind Spurs, and 2 behind City. 3 ahead of United with a brilliant shiny new manager at the helm, a wonderful 100 million midfield acquisition and a sharp 250k-per-week forward leading the line. 3 proven winners in the side. Behind some old Frenchman, his overpriced anchoring midfielder and a headless centre-back.
Of course three points is not much, especially this early in the season. Of course we got lucky today. But it’s not the reason behind my rhetoric. Rather it’s the fact how quick everyone was to praise Mourinho and his additions and just as quick to write down Arsenal. Also, didn’t United get lucky this season? Weren’t they lucky to beat Hull, for example? You won’t go anywhere without a fat slice of luck. It’s always present, because football is unpredictable, so yes, we did get lucky today, but so do others. Yet I see few talking about these teams in such terms. Words like “sign of the champions”, “desire to win” or, my personal favourite “elite mentality” are thrown about. Well, it works both ways.
Could our performance have been better? Undoubtedly. We weren’t on the same level as for our last two games. We were much more pedestrian (not the least because Burnley were exceptionally well-organised), less incisive, less quick, less aggressive. There were some poor touches involved, our players looked jaded and the options from the bench were limited.
We can argue Giroud’s, or Ramsey’s or even Perez’s availability would have gone some way towards shaking things up, but we can’t use what we don’t have. Giroud is an exemplary athlete, I think it’s only his second more-or-less serious injury in over 4 seasons, the first being a freak accident. Even now he’s only missed two games and should be back after the break. As far as I’m concerned, we have relied on Ollie way too much since his arrival in 2012 and the poor bloke deserves a bit of rest just like Arsene Wenger deserves to be knighted for everything he’s done for Arsenal and for the game.
Aaron’s issue is strangely ongoing, but we knew in advance he wouldn’t be available, didn’t we? No use crying over spilt milk (do they still use this phrase around here?). Besides, there’s a strong case to be made that Cazorla should start ahead of the Welshman. Maybe Xhaka should too. And even when it comes right down to it, we have so many midfield options that we loaned out Jack Wilshere and reduced Elneny’s role to a quite peripheral one (or has it been peripheral since the Egyptian’s arrival in January?) Ramsey probably could have shaken things up, maybe allowed a clearly exhausted Ozil a breather, but the Welshman is still just one man.
While Perez, of the three, probably would have enjoyed the least freedom for expression. As far as my (admittedly limited) knowledge goes, Lucas needs space to thrive, and today we had oh-so-little of it. Better to have Lucas than not, but the question of how much difference he could have made remains open to debate.
Yet, despite all these problems, we won. Away from home against a hard-working opponent on the back of a Champions League game. Something which plays a huge part, something that Arsene could have said in defense of a rather disjointed performance, yet he didn’t, and preferred to focus on the internal controllable factors, like below-par technical quality. Which is nice of him indeed, once again underlines how much of a purist Arsene is, seeing as Barcelona lost their La Liga game to Celta, and I suspect the midweek CL game played a big part in it.
It’s one of these times when the manner of the win didn’t really matter, just the simple fact of it. The result. The points in the bag. Was it harsh on Burnley? It probably was. Sean Dyche’s men were very well drilled, compact and diligent. They allowed little space between the lines, they pounced on mis-hit passes and poorly-controlled balls in an instant, they chased our centre-backs in our own half and they sprung quick counters. They were also dangerous in the air, especially from set-pieces and could have won the game just like we did.
The effort the Clarets put in is admirable. Being such a thorn at Turf Moor will likely help them avoid relegation. But do I care for them enough to gift them a point from today? No. Not in a million years. Not the least because of their brute of a centre-forward, Sam Vokes. Who Mustafi dealt with reasonably well, but whose shirt-pulling and elbow-swinging was less than impressive.
In the end it came down to a scrappy goal from Koscielny and I couldn’t be happier for the win and for our captain, who is now the highest-scoring defender in Arsenal history, with 17 goals. It will make the week ahead and the international break overall a much, much sunnier place.
And that’s the way it should be.