Özil in microcosm as Gunners bounce back
IT was difficult to ignore the Mesut Özil return. Arsenal’s supposed star player was back — given his first start since November 11 after a back problem and his high-profile omission for tactical reasons against Tottenham in the League Cup last Wednesday — and he was central to two of Arsenal’s goals, even if he was peripheral for long spells.
This was Özil in microcosm. Given the captain’s armband by Unai Emery, he was frequently buffeted by a strongarm Burnley team and largely unable to impose his passing rhythms. But he popped up early with a glorious pass that helped to make Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s first goal of the day and late on, too, with an assist for substitute Alex Iwobi.
It was a strangely disjointed game, with Aubameyang putting Arsenal in charge with his second at the beginning of the second half. He now has 12 league goals this season, 14 in all competitions.
Burnley made life difficult for Arsenal. Ashley Barnes pulled a goal back and when the board went up to show five minutes of stoppage-time, there was chuntering from the home support. Enter Özil. He drove into the area, jinked inside and caught a break when his pass deflected and broke for Iwobi. The finish was true. Arsenal had lost last Sunday at Southampton and again to Spurs in midweek. This was more like it.
The Özil soap opera was the most prominent sub-plot and it was a trademark flash of vision and technique from him that sent the ball spinning inside the defender on the far side for the opening goal. The marauding Sead Kolasinac dinked it back and the chance was there for Aubameyang. The striker took it first-time on the volley and although the contract was not clean, the direction inside the bottom corner was perfect. It was his first goal in five appearances.
It is impossible to second guess Emery’s line-ups and systems and he started here with a back four and Özil at the tip of a midfield diamond. The manager appears determined to use Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette as a central strike partnership. But he switched to 3-4-1-2 on 37 minutes when Nacho Monreal had to go off, with Granit Xhaka moved to the left of the back three.
Defensively, Emery has had to mix and match because of injuries and his team did not look secure, particularly to high balls over the top. They got away with an early Monreal aberration when he committed to a header and missed it, which allowed Ashley Barnes to play in Ashley Westwood. One-on-one with Bernd Leno, the midfielder was off target.
Arsenal had flickered at the outset but the game was niggly, with the always angry Barnes central to much of it. He had a battle with Sokratis Papastathopoulos, the pair tussling on the ground in the first half after they chased a loose ball into touch; Barnes was rather harshly booked. Sokratis would pick up a yellow card for pulling back his rival. Barnes plays on the edge; Burnley’s physicality, in general, was a problem for their hosts.
Arsenal’s second came after it looked as though Özil had put his team in trouble with a loose ball on the edge of his area. Mohamed Elneny won it back, with help from Özil, and the counter-attack was on. Matteo Guendouzi found Kolasinac, who moved it inside to Lacazette and on it went to Aubameyang. The finish flicked off Ben Mee and flew past Hart at the near post.
Burnley refused to lie down. They knew Arsenal were vulnerable. Sokratis needed to make a saving tackle on Chris Wood after a defensive breakdown on a Burnley free-kick, and the visitors scored shortly afterwards. The Gunners failed to clear their lines and when the ball broke after good work from Kevin Long, Barnes lashed home.
Jack Cork fluffed a half-chance with a wild shot but Burnley did not manage to create anything clear-cut for the equaliser and the last word would go to Iwobi.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates one of his two goals for Arsenal against Burnley