Eventful added time ends with three valuable points

Burnley came to the Emirates on Sunday with the worst away record in the league, consisting of just one point picked up on the road all season. Arsenal were back in form and had a centre-forward who had scored in his last five games. An easy home win was surely the only outcome.
But after Swansea shocked the league with a win away at Liverpool on Saturday, Arsenal should have been ready for the unexpected. Burnley, albeit a completely different proposition at Turf Moor, had pushed the Gunners all the way earlier in the season, with Laurent Koscielny bundling in the winner with the last touch of the game. But despite the major disparity between their results at home and away, Burnley have had a very good first season back in the Premier League, and had the potential to cause Arsenal problems.
For the most-part, Arsenal controlled the game, before they started making problems for themselves. The Gunners created a few chances in the first half and generally controlled the tempo and pace of the game, but as in the most games recently, there was a noticeable improvement in the second period. Knowing the results had gone for Arsenal on Saturday, the team really couldn’t afford to let an opportunity to move up to second pass them by.
Early in the second half, I was fearing another frustrating game and potentially needing another late winner (!), and those fears seemed to have been relieved when Shkodran Mustafi headed home his first goal for the club. At 1-0 and an hour gone in the game, it should have been relatively straightforward to see the game out. I suspected Arsenal might score a second goal with 10-15 minutes to go and we could all have a relatively stress-free afternoon.
Then the chilling combination of Jon Moss and Granit Xhaka changed the game. Jon Moss was the referee who ludicrously sent off the Swiss international against Swansea at the Emirates earlier in the season. For all of those who tried to justify the red card at the time, has anyone else been sent off for a similar offence this season? Of course not. Against Burnley, Xhaka made the mistake of lunging in unnecessarily on Steven Defour, giving the referee an option to send him off. After advice from the linesman, Jon Moss took that option. It was a harsh red card, especially considering some of the two-footed challenges that have gone unpunished in the Premier League, but I can understand why the officials thought it could have been worthy of a red as it was slightly reckless. The biggest frustration though is that for a combination of two fouls with Jon Moss as the referee, Xhaka will have been banned for seven games for offences that probably added up to two yellows.
Xhaka’s discipline has obviously been put under the microscope, but of the two reds and two penalties he’s conceded this season, two were bad decisions from the officials (Swansea red and Stoke penalty) and one was dubious (Burnley), leaving the penalty against Bournemouth as the only one he couldn’t argue with. He has been playing well recently, and was having a decent game until he was sent off on Sunday, so he’ll be a big miss in the coming games. Hopefully the period out of the team will give him the chance to reflect a bit on the cards he received, and while they have been harsh, he’ll know he needs to stop giving referees decisions to make by needlessly going to ground in certain situations.
Suddenly faced with seeing out the game with ten men for over 20 minutes, Arsenal were doing a decent job of it until stoppage time. The Gunners carried a threat on the break and had Mustafi and Koscielny snuffing out the danger when Burnley got in and around the penalty area. Then in the third minute of added time, Ashley Barnes bundled his way into the box, went over from Coquelin’s challenge and Jon Moss had no hesitation to give the spot kick. As much as there was plenty to complain about with the referee’s performance, it was a definite foul from Coquelin, and Andre Gray duly levelled the game up from spot.
As stoppage time continued, quite where seven minutes were found to add on is anyone’s guess, Arsene Wenger was agitated on the touch line and got sent to the stands by Jon Moss. He compounded things by trying to get fourth official Anthony Taylor to turn around and watch the game when standing in the tunnel, but eventually he did leave proceedings. Obviously it didn’t look good what Arsene did and he immediately apologised after the game, plus a touch-line ban is likely, but for all those fans who want a manager to show some passion, never question how much Wenger cares about the club and how every bad result hurts him.
Like most others in the stadium, Wenger was a man who was fuming that this seemed to be a peak-Arsenal choke, and the officials had played a part in it. Rivals drop points, 1-0 up and cruising, then finish with ten men and concede a penalty to draw. It had all the hallmarks of an Arsenal meltdown.
But while it would be nice for Arsenal to win matches comfortably and not be reliant on late goals, they have become pretty damn good at netting late on when they really need it. Winners don’t come much later than 90+8, but after Laurent Koscielny was kicked in the head by Ben Mee, Jon Moss gave a spot kick and ensured there wasn’t a riot among fans directed at him.
Alexis Sanchez stepped up having never scored a penalty for the Gunners, and that made me nervous. When Santi Cazorla was in a similar situation against Soutampton earlier in the season, I always felt he’d score. I didn’t have the same confidence in Alexis, but with his dogs on a banner in the stadium, he was the calmest man in North London to just panenka the ball down the middle and spark jubilant celebrations around the ground. While chipping the ball is always a good option as the goalkeeper is likely to dive, it still takes massive balls to do with the last kick of the game and the match on the line.
The biggest regret this season remains blowing the two leads in a week at Everton and Manchester City, as were it not for those two results, Arsenal could be right up there near Chelsea. But those two matches aside, the succession of late goals does imply that this team really does have more about it than recent incarnations. There is now a deep-rooted belief that they can battle back in tough situations and that they’ll find a goal late on if necessary. It’s not good for the health of supporters, but is good for winning points.
It may well be that the result isn’t a big turning point and Chelsea still cruise to the title, but Sunday was brilliant. It was stressful and exhausting, but brilliant. It should have been a routine win, but Arsenal, partly through their own making, had their backs to the wall and the title challenge was about to fade away, then a Chilean hero flanked by his dogs came to rescue. It was why we keep going to watch football, you just never know when a mundane game could produce a magical moment.


Chelsea beautifully and savagely dismantled by free-flowing Gunners

So we were waiting for Arsenal to properly ‘click’ this season. There were glimpses against Hull and Watford, but everything came together in a thunderous and thrilling first half display at Emirates Stadium on Saturday. A win over Chelsea was long overdue, and when it arrived, it was comprehensive.
20 years after Arsene Wenger was introduced as the Arsenal manager, this was a performance that had all the hallmarks of Wenger’s best teams. The football was played at break-neck speed and the passing was crisp, while the Gunners looked solid at the back and didnt’t allow the visitors to bully them again.
It was one of those game where picking a man of the match was a slightly futile exercise because you could have made a compelling case for every Arsenal player to be up for the award. Each man was superb in one of the most complete performances at the Emirates in recent years. After romping into a 3-0 lead in the first half, Arsenal then controlled the game with Chelsea unable to muster a shot on target until late in the second half. After a string of decent results following the loss to Liverpool on the opening day, the visit of the Blues was viewed as a real test of where Arsenal are in terms of being able to launch a title challenge this season. On the evidence of Saturday, the Gunners are in very decent shape indeed.
In recent years against Chelsea, Arsenal have usually been unable to score the opening goal in matches between the two sides, with Chelsea usually able to get a lead and then just hold Arsenal at arms’ length. Last season there was also the issue of keeping 11 players on the pitch with Gabriel, Santi Cazorla and Per Mertesacker all seeing red. On this occasion, Arsenal managed to solve both of those problems with an early goal, and they subsequently kept their discipline by not even picking up a yellow card.
The early goal came about from the tenacity of Alexis Sanchez and the intensity with which Arsenal started the game. The Chilean pressurised Gary Cahill into playing a loose back-pass, allowing Alexis to race towards goal. The goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was drawn out of goal and Alexis delicately clipped the ball over him and into the net. It was as if the ease the confidence with which Alexis finished the chance seemed to pervade around the team as Arsenal immediately grabbed a strong grip on the game.
If the first goal had an element of fortune, the second was pure footballing magic. It was Wengerball at its best. Cazorla and Walcott linked up before the ball came to Iwobi near the edge of the box. He exchanged one-touch passes with Ozil before spinning to slide a ball in behind the covering defenders for Hector Bellerin. The Spaniard rolled the ball across the box for Theo Walcott to stroke the ball home with Chelsea chasing shadows. It was a goal that looked so simple but was absolutely brilliant because of the crisp and clinical execution.
The only downside in a barnstorming start was the knee injury picked up by Francis Coquelin when blocking a shot from N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman had made an excellent start to the game alongside Cazorla in midfield, justifying his selection in a competitive part of the Arsenal squad. But whereas his injury destabilised the Arsenal side last season, Granit Xhaka strolled on in his place and slotted in perfectly into the team on Saturday. He’s had a good start to the season, so hopefully Coquelin isn’t out for a long time, but the strength of the squad now means that it won’t be the major blow it was 12 months ago.
At 2-0, there was still a fear that Chelsea could sneak a way back into the game. But Arsenal topped off a thrilling first period with a brutally beautiful third goal on the counter-attack. After a Chelsea attack broke down on the edge of Arsenal’s penalty area, Mesut Ozil glided away from Kante and alongside Alexis charged towards Gary Cahill and David Luiz. Alexis broke to the right and chipped the ball perfectly to the back post after receiving the ball from German, allowing Ozil to run onto the ball and volley it past Courtois via the post. It wasn’t the cleanest connection from Ozil, but the breakaway was clinical and emphatic.
The start of the season has brought about a lot of debate about the make-up of Arsenal’s front four, with Alexis predominantly playing down the middle. On Saturday, it suddenly all made sense as, after going ahead so early, Arsenal then had the perfect four to break quickly on Chelsea with the pace of Alexis and Walcott, and the guile of Ozil and Iwobi. So far this season, Walcott and Iwobi have taken some of the creative and scoring burden from Arsenal’s two main men, something that wasn’t happening as much last season. If Ozil wasn’t creating chances, generally Arsenal weren’t creating chances, but Iwobi has helped change that by offering a different option. 
Arsenal did have chances to kill the game off in the second half as Walcott’s chipped cross was just too high for Alexis before the winger had a shot saved by the legs of Courtois. That didn’t take away from an excellent all-round display from Walcott as he was keen to get involved, tracked back to assist Bellerin in negating Hazard and read the game superbly to pop up in the middle to tap in Arsenal’s second goal. Something has happened to Theo Walcott this season as he looks more focussed and more committed for the team. Long may it continue. 
The longer the game went on, the more desperate Arsenal fans were to keep a clean sheet to emphasise the nature of the victory. Bar a one-on-one saved by Petr Cech, Chelsea struggled to find a way through a stubborn Arsenal defence. Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny dealt with Diego Costa superbly as they hassled him, were physical and cut off any supply around the box by challenging him higher up the pitch. I’ve never seen Costa bullied by two centre-backs in the way Mustafi and Koscielny did. When Costa was shoved unceremoniously to the ground by Koscielny late in the game before picking up a yellow card for dissent, it summed out how dominant Arsenal had been against a player that has used all of his tricks to deceive, cheat and score against the Gunners in the past. 
On the odd occasion that the centre-backs were caught out, the full-backs covered superbly. Nacho Monreal kept Willian quiet, while Hector Bellerin stopped Eden Hazard making any sort of impact on the game. Bellerin also brought the house down with a stunning recovery tackle on Pedro when the winger looked set to go through on goal. Despite giving Pedro a few yards as a head start, Bellerin ate up the ground in a staggering show of speed before perfectly timing the tackle on the edge of the box. Even at 3-0 up, it was brilliant to see the determination and commitment of the Arsenal team to not give Chelsea anything to take from the game.
The win was long overdue against Chelsea. While Antonio Conte clearly has plenty to sort out in his squad, it wasn’t as if the visitors were dreadfully poor at the Emirates, they just got taken apart by the Gunners. They came up against a united and determined Arsenal team, who had a game plan and executed it perfectly.
The win and the performance was a fitting way to mark 20 years since Arsene Wenger was unveiled as the Arsenal manager. It harked back to the glory days of his early reign as Gunners boss, and hinted those days could yet return with a few more similar performances this season. The challenge is now for Arsenal to replicate that performance again and again during this campaign, but it is also important to savour it as a game on its own. It was a day that makes the bad ones as a football fan seem worth suffering through because sometimes you get to witness some breathe-taking brilliance. Arsenal served up plenty of that on Saturday. 

Arsenal dig deep to win while trying to find fluency

With two new players making their debuts against Southampton, there was always a chance that Arsenal wouldn’t be at their fluent best with Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez understandably adapting to the team. As the debutants settled in, Arsenal laboured in the first 25 minutes on Saturday, but fought hard to come back from 1-0 down to get the first home win of the season.
While the passing wasn’t at the standards reached in the last league outing at Vicarage Road against Watford, Arsenal couldn’t be faulted for effort after going behind against Saints. Too often in recent seasons, Arsenal have been quick to go into their shell and the players have looked a bit disinterested after a set-back in a home game in which they’re expected to win. That wasn’t the case on Saturday. The eventual victory was secured through the sheer force of will rather than by ripping a stubborn Saints side apart with flowing football.
Even though Southampton’s goal had a large slice of fortune with Petr Cech tipping Tadic’s free-kick onto the bar before it ricocheted into the net off the goalkeeper’s back, it was impossible to argue that the visitors didn’t deserve the lead on the balance of play in the opening stages of the game. Arsenal afforded them too much possession and couldn’t get Lucas Perez involved in the game up front as Mesut Ozil had a slight of off-day by his incredibly high standards. It was the sort of game that needed something to give the Gunners a kick up the arse to get going, and going behind did spark Arsenal into action.
The other spark came from Arsenal’s vice-captain on his birthday. Laurent Koscielny has many great qualities that make him the best centre-back in the league (in my humble and, let’s face it, quite biased view). No-one knew that he had the ability to score with an overhead kick as one of those qualities. Southampton failed to clear Santi Cazorla’s corner and Koscielny executed the perfect bicycle finish to power the ball past Fraser Forster. It was a truly astonishing moment of skill and it came from a centre-back!
Wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of Per Mertesacker does seem to have brought out a higher level of performance from Koscielny as he is growing into the leadership role. At a time when Arsenal needed someone to take the game by the scruff if the neck on Saturday and take responsibility, Koscielny did it spectacularly. He’s led by example so far this season, so while the bizarre run of Arsenal club captains not playing in league games continues,  Koscielny is the perfect man to inspire his team-mates.
In the second period, Southampton were happy to sit in and try and play on the break by bringing on Shane Long up front. Despite Arsenal improving and creating some openings, arguably the best chances fell to Long at the other end. One was a one-on-one with Petr Cech that he clipped wide, and other was a rebound from the goalkeeper that he casually rolled towards goal but Cech recovered to kick it clear. Long’s painful second half showing was complete when he was caught near the corner flag by Nacho Monreal, but the referee played on and Arsenal went down the other end of the field and ultimately scored the winner.
While Shane Long did legitimately get trodden on by Monreal, it was refreshing to see Arsenal not immediately kick the ball out of play. Unless it is a serious injury, Arsenal need to stop being nice about things as usually teams are just trying to slow the game down deliberately. This tougher edge to Arsenal was evident moments after Long was left on the ground as the Gunners didn’t even stop play with Laurent Koscielny down with a head injury in the Southampton penalty area. They caught the Saints napping with the Frenchman down as Jose Fonte hauled down Olivier Giroud to concede a penalty.
I’m writing this having only seen the foul live at the ground, and while I didn’t have the best angle on it, the defender grabbed a lot of Giroud’s shirt, and you’re giving the referee the chance to make a decision by manhandling the centre-forward in that way. Southampton’s only gripe is that play should probably have been stopped by the official because of the blow suffered by Koscielny. Santi Cazorla produced a nerveless spot kick to win the game following the lengthy delay for treatment for the skipper.
With the squad rotated ahead of the start of the Champions League, it showed the strength of the squad that Arsene Wenger was able to bring on Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Alex Iwobi in the second half to offer a different threat to Southampton. Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain flattered to deceive in the wide areas, while Lucas Perez was lively through the middle but didn’t get much service to make a big impression on his first appearance for the club. Because of the changes, we didn’t see Lucas get the chance to link-up with Alexis. As a more mobile player than Giroud, it would be interesting to see what Lucas can do with the Chilean alongside him.
As for the other debutant, it was a tidy enough first showing from Shkodran Mustafi. The partnership with Koscielny will take time to develop, but that didn’t stop Mustafi winning some good tackles and getting stuck into his first Premier League game for the Gunners.
The centre of midfield continues to offer the most intrigue of any for Arsenal in terms of selection. Granit Xhaka played well at Watford but missed out on Saturday, although he will surely return for the Champions a League trip to Paris on Tuesday. Francis Coquelin was given a chance alongside Santi Cazorla, and while the two couldn’t get a hold on the game in the early stages, he grew into he game and helped inject some energy into the team with some typically combative midfield play. He doesn’t offer the control of Xhaka, but remains an excellent player to have in the squad.
It wasn’t a great performances on Saturday, but it was by no means a dreadful one. Albeit the wins came either side of the international break, but Arsenal have back-to-back wins, a full squad and it finally feels like the season has properly started. There’s also a harder, more determined edge to the team that saw them through to a big victory despite still trying to find their best form.