Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal have never lost to a lower league side in his tenure, but rarely will such a side have caused as many problems as Burnley did today. The scoreline looks comfortable, but it is entirely deceptive – Burnley were the better side for long periods, and only composure in front of goal sent us through.
The warning signs were there early – Gray chipped in a cross from the right, and with Sagna sucked into marking Toure’s man, Lafferty ghosted in from the left wing to head firmly against the underside of the bar. The analysts criticised him for not heading down, but he picked one of the few spots that Lehmann couldn’t reach and failed only by millimetres.
Minutes later, Arsenal were ahead, and once again it was Eduardo providing the killer touch. Toure ran over the halfway line, before chipping a simple but perfectly weighted ball over the top, and with the defender unable to catch the Croatian, he coolly waited for Kiraly to approach before clipping it past him. It was the finish of a man who knew he would score.
But where such a goal might deflate some opposition, Burnley took it in their stride, and whilst not creating a host of chances, gradually took hold of the game, and had the best opportunity of the rest of the half, McCann firing over Elliott’s cutback after Traore had been unable to clear. At the other end, Gilberto’s deflected header was cleared off the line.
The second half began in much the same way, with Burnley disrupting play, moving forward with purpose, and our passing going woefully astray. But then the tide seemed to turn when the hosts were reduced to ten men, when Kyle Lafferty, who had been superb up to that point, reached for a ball he miscontrolled and caught Gilberto’s shins.
The letter of the law says that any tackle over the ball is a red card offence, but in this case, the rules are ridiculous. The clampdown on high challenges has been to cut out those frustrated tackles that fly in around the knee, or the wild leg breakers that players launch into. Lafferty was merely overstretching, and his foot caught the top of the ball before bouncing up into Gilberto’s shin pad. There was no malice, made clear by the lack of reaction from the rest of the Arsenal team, and while Alan Wiley had the perfect view, I thought the tackle deserved only yellow.
The game seemed over, to everyone except Burnley, who continued to press, before being caught on the counter attack. Eduardo, who had missed a decent chance earlier in the half, threaded a lovely through ball to Bendtner, who took the ball around the keeper with his first touch and slotted home.
With that, the game was truly up, but the Championship side battled until the end, and were rightfully applauded for their efforts by the travelling fans. Ignore the red card – they played good, fair football, taking the game to Arsenal and giving us one hell of a game. If they play like that in the league over the coming weeks they’ll turn their form around. Lafferty and Elliott were superb on the wings, and even after the red card, Harley stepped up from left back and continued the excellent wide play.
As for our players, Lehmann actually had very little to do despite the pressure, Sagna worked hard and well against Lafferty while Traore was pinned back on the other flank. Toure was assured while Senderos was not, the Swiss still seemingly short on confidence.
In the middle of the park our lack of bite was there for all to see, illustrating just how important Flamini has become. Gilberto had some nice touches but gave the ball away too much, and Denilson struggled. The absence of Diarra is a mystery – no injury was reported so to see him out of the sixteen was a surprise, and may indicate his impending departure. On the flanks, Diaby was his usual self – able to wriggle out of packs of players only to give the ball away, while Eboue just had one of those days – his distribution was terrible, and after each misplaced pass came the pained look on his face we have come to know. Let’s hope he comes back from the African Nations Cup on a little more form.
Up front, Eduardo proved his worth in front of goal once again, but while Bendtner took his goal well, little else he tried came off. I thought on a couple of occasions he was getting frustrated, but he wouldn’t have been the only one.
Rarely will you see an Arsenal side play so flatly and still come away with a win. But on a weekend where so many have fallen, and remarkably only six Premiership sides have progressed without a replay, it is only the result that counts.
But credit where it is due – Burnley were terrific today.