Funny how £182million can just vanish into thin air these days. It’s the sum Arsenal laid out on new players in the last financial year, with an average £104,000-a-week salary to keep them happy, even after a pay cut. Yet the walking calamity called Granit Xhaka still turns out to be the man in possession at the pivotal moment.
Arsenal were knocking the ball around their six-yard box with no-one looking particularly disposed to do anything decisive with it as half-time approached, when Xhaka neglected to detect the 6ft 3in presence of Chris Wood standing precisely in the place where he placed it. No-one was more surprised than Wood when Xhaka’s pass rebounded off him and into the net. The New Zealander’s shrug told the story.
The numbers tell you that Xhaka should have been moved on by Arsenal some time ago. No Premier League player has made more errors contributing directly to a goal than his eight misdemeanours in the last five seasons. The red card he received for grabbing Ashley Westwood around the throat was fundamental to Burnley leaving the Emirates with all three points in December.
But the Arsenal malaise ran deeper. Burnley’s goal, six minutes before half-time, was still haunting them when the second half kicked off and was not out of their system until the last ten minutes approached.
Bukayo Saka, so often the shining light this season, was launching into eye-watering challenges. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the early threat, evaporated into the background. Thomas Partey, initially working box-to-box, was bullied out of possession by Matej Vydra on the edge of his own area. Arsenal became a study in beige. There was possession but, with the exception of a pinball finale, only a little prodding around the edges.
The notion of a £104,000-a-week footballer is an alien one to Burnley. Half that sum is their general frame of reference. They’d spent match-day morning announcing a new contract for a player who’s been around for an eternity: 35-year-old Phil Bardsley. Matt Lowton, Eric Pieters, Kevin Long and Johann Berg Gudmundsson – all in their 30s – have all extended this month.
When you don’t possess one of the most expensive strike forces in Europe, as Arsenal do, you employ intelligence. It seemed like Burnley had spotted that Arteta’s ball-players were at a point of maximum vulnerability while mincing around in possession on the edge of their own box. ‘Against popular belief, there is always that Burnley storyline that we wait for the chance,’ Dyche said of Burnley’s press. ‘We like front-foot football.’
It took his team an uncharacteristically long time to get started. They were still blinking in the lunchtime sunshine when Arsenal struck on six minutes.
Partey revealed that possession in front of your own box does have benefits, instigating a sharp counter attack which Willian drove forward and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finished – exploiting the way Lowton stood off to shape a right-foot shot which crept over the line.