- Arsene Wenger marked 20 years of being Arsenal manager, having joined the club in October 1996
- Burnley had the best chances of the first half, with Sam Vokes going close with a header
- The Gunners were struggling for the breakthrough as Burnley regularly threatened through set pieces
- Bundled effort from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscienly saw Arsenal collect all three points
- Arsenal have now won five games in a row across all competitions for the first time since February 2015
Oh the irony. Having spent 90 minutes trying to craft a picture-book goal, the anniversary celebrations started with one of the scruffiest efforts Arsene Wenger has seen in 20 years.
‘Lucky,’ was the word Wenger chose. Sean Dyche, by contrast, had plenty of descriptive terms for Laurent Koscielny’s 92nd-minute intervention, but none were complimentary. Burnley’s manager smouldered that referee Craig Pawson allowed the defender’s strike to stand — with good reason.
Koscielny applied the final touch with his hand, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s header skidded up towards goal, and Dyche’s ire was exacerbated by the fact Pawson could have blown for time six seconds before Tom Heaton picked the ball from his net.
‘It’s a handball goal,’ said Dyche. ‘I can only hope that he (Pawson) has a tough night driving home when he thinks about that. It is tough to take. Six seconds doesn’t sound a lot but it makes a massive difference. Did I go to see him? What was the point?
‘Apart from that, which is out of our control, we delivered a very good performance.’
Wenger could understand his opposite number’s misery after such a cruel blow, but he was not in the mood to dwell on it. This had threatened to be one of those days that Wenger’s critics seize upon but instead, it became hugely significant — two extra points that could turn out to be crucial come May.
Wenger’s odyssey in English football began 14 miles down the road in Blackburn in October 1996 and his team that afternoon surged out of the blocks, with Ian Wright scoring within three minutes to secure the first of 648 wins.
There was to be no rapid start here, though. With their confidence lifted by last Monday’s dismissal of Watford, Burnley were an organised mass of claret and blue, scuffling and pestering, doing all they could to disrupt Arsenal’s elegant rhythm — the visitors’ ball retention, as always, was effortless.
The issue for Wenger, though, was the last ball — always the final ball. They were constantly one pass away from brilliance in the first 45 minutes, but that one pass was either overhit or blocked from finding its target by a forest of Burnley legs.
Why were they so intent on trying to walk it in? Why was it pass, pass, pass but never shoot, shoot, shoot? No matter how much the away fans in the David Fishwick Stand implored them to take aim, they wouldn’t take a chance. Wenger wouldn’t have it any other way.
Theo Walcott sneaked into a position that looked promising but was thwarted; Mesut Ozil had the ball pilfered from his foot in a dangerous area when Stephen Ward scurried back to be a menace; Alexis Sanchez couldn’t rearrange his feet in time when another opening came his way.
Slowly you could see Wenger became anxious and irritable. Had Sam Vokes shown more poise in the 39th minute, when Matt Lowton’s cross from the right found him alone on the penalty spot, you have to wonder whether they would have been able to respond
Instead, Vokes headed wide. It wasn’t by much but it was enough to leave him hollow. Eyes and mouth wide open, hands clasped to his face, he couldn’t believe what he had done nor could Dyche, who spun 180 degrees on his heels, muttering his frustration.
‘It was the golden opportunity, wasn’t it?’ Dyche asked.
He didn’t need an answer. Chances of that nature don’t come along that often in games such as these if you are Burnley. Dyche — whose side will need to eke out every single point to keep their heads above water — knew it had the potential to haunt them.
The second half followed a similar pattern. Arsenal kept the ball, Burnley squeezed the spaces, a glorified version of attack versus defence; Burnley relished it with the outstanding Michael Keane, who rattled the bar with a header, and Ben Mee alive to everything that came their way.
There were, of course, some anxious moments, notably when Sanchez smashed a volley from 10 yards into the advertising hoardings and Walcott curled an effort from just outside the area but Burnley had looked to have done enough. Then, however, the roof caved in. Burnley’s defence stopped when Sanchez rolled a short corner to Ozil and, arriving at the back post, substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain and Koscielny smuggled the ball in.
For all that Dyche raged and Turf Moor howled its derision, it made no difference. The game was up, there was no time for a comeback.
Wenger was in his own world. He did that little fist pump that we have seen often in the last three decades, the enigmatic little smile that said another three points had been landed. With Manchester City losing at Tottenham, the significance was clear.
‘It was a big win,’ said Wenger. ‘I have been told that we were fortunate but I couldn’t see. You feel disappointed if you’re in Burnley’s shoes because they gave absolutely everything.
‘They will be a bit gutted to lose like that because they put all the effort in to get a result and did their best.
‘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 had we not won.’
But they did. ‘1-0 to the Arsenal,’ those who had travelled from London sang.
Wenger has heard the refrain many times since October 1996. And on this particular day, it had probably never sounded sweeter.
GRAHAM POLL’S VERDICT
Referee Craig Pawson couldn’t see the last-minute incident involving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscielny and even if he had, it is a 50-50 call.
I watched the replays three times and I still don’t know whether it was deliberate handball on Koscielny’s part.
The defender’s arms are only up because he was trying to play the ball with his feet.