Arsenal's last-minute penalty seals another late win at Burnley
BURNLEY, England -- Three quick thoughts from Arsenal's last-gasp 1-0 win over Burnley at Turf Moor on Sunday.
1. Arsenal beat Burnley at the death again
For the second year in a row, Arsenal snatched it at the death at Turf Moor, and for the second year in a row, their winner came in deeply controversial circumstances.
Burnley were holding out for what would have been a well-deserved draw when, in added time, Aaron Ramsey tumbled under the challenge of James Tarkowski. The level of contact was inconclusive but referee Lee Mason was in little doubt; he awarded a penalty, gleefully dispatched by Alexis Sanchez, and Arsenal continued their mini-revival by leapfrogging rivals Tottenham into fourth spot.
On a bitterly cold, showery day in England's northwest, it was Burnley, snappy in the challenge and quick to move the ball, who started the brighter. Johann Berg Gudmundsson's cross, aimed just beyond the onrushing Jeff Hendrick, was not the only early delivery to cause flutters and the Icelander came agonisingly close himself on the quarter-hour mark. His angled drive was tipped onto the post superbly by Petr Cech and came after the latest of several attacks in which Burnley won the ball deep inside their opponents' half.
When Arsenal threatened, they should have taken the lead. Good work from Alexandre Lacazette down the left brought the chance but Aaron Ramsey, steaming into the box unattended, could only sidefoot his low centre high and wide on the half volley.
At the other end, Cech blocked a far-post header from Hendrick. The game had become a fast, full-blooded affair and Nacho Monreal was next to come close with a 25-yarder that fizzed wide. A superb Tarkowski challenge denied Sanchez a clear sight of goal as, around the 30-minute mark, the visitors began to exert a modicum of authority. It was short lived and Cech was called into action again before the break by Robbie Brady's whipped free kick. For Arsenal, it had been a flat affair.
They began the second half with more zip and Nick Pope had to smother smartly from Lacazette. As the hour mark passed, the French striker saw another effort deflected wide; Ramsey then fired over on the turn but the openings at either end had largely dried up. When Sead Kolasinac fired wastefully across goal after dancing into the box, it spoke volumes for the lack of real quality on offer.
Hendrick and Brady both sought to test Cech as Burnley retained a threat, albeit more on the counter now.
Jack Wilshere, brought on for Alex Iwobi midway through the second half, saw a shot of his own diverted narrowly off target but the chances of either side finding a winner looked increasingly remote. That was until Ramsey's tumble, Mason's blast on the whistle and Sanchez's unerringly dispatched low kick.
2. Arsenal back in top four, but questions remain
Football's ability to change perceptions within a matter of seconds never ceases to amaze. As this match ticked into stoppage time it looked as if Arsenal, while picking up a worthy point, had failed to capitalise on last weekend's North London derby win. Instead, Arsene Wenger can point to a potentially seismic win earned in the most unforgiving of Premier League environments, although he will surely know their performance level needs to be far more consistent if they are to maintain their newfound position in the top four.
Arsenal's vigour and energy were the hallmarks of their win over Tottenham but it took them half of the game to get anywhere near that standard here. Their second-half performance was certainly closer to the required mark in terms of pressing and challenges won. The question was why they did not come out of the blocks more quickly and it felt, not for the first time, that they too readily allowed their opponents to impose their game upon them.
While their intensity was a shade off the mark, fluidity eluded them too. That can be partly explained by the fact Mesut Ozil, who travelled with the squad but was ruled out of contention before kickoff due to illness, had to sit out and his replacement, Iwobi, does not have a comparable gift for prising open opponents who are adept at squeezing space.
As has been the case too often this season, Arsenal's attacking play never looked sharp enough. There is no really instinctive understanding between their front players; too many extra touches are taken, too many minor but crucial hesitations on the ball and the end product is a team that seems more reliant on bolts from the blue like that late Tarkowski foul than moments of collective brilliance.
Not that they will care on the night. For all the brickbats that have come their way Arsenal are, by hook or by crook, now serious protagonists in the Champions League argument once again.
3. Cork's composure underpins Burnley progress
Burnley's progress this season has been remarkable and it is high praise to say that, in encounters like this one, they no longer look like plucky underdogs looking to fight above their weight. When Arsenal visited Turf Moor last season it took a controversial late Laurent Koscielny goal to win the game but it would be an exaggeration to say Burnley ever controlled proceedings that day.
They met the same cruel fate this time but still showed that plenty has changed since then. Sean Dyche's side have far more about them than sheer grit and bluster, and much of that owes to the man at the fulcrum of their midfield.
Jack Cork won his first full England cap earlier this month and, watched from the stands by Gareth Southgate here, did his hopes of further involvement no harm at all. If Burnley had a fault in previous seasons under Dyche it was a lack of composure in midfield; the absence of a figure who could take the ball from the defence and set attacks in train from there. Cork solves that problem; at 28 he is in his prime and his move from Swansea in the summer increasingly seems one of the best deals of the year.
Cork was constantly available to receive possession, shuttling the ball out to his wide men and on to his fellow midfielders Hendrick and Steven Defour. He barely missed a beat and the thought occurred more than once that Arsenal, for whom Ramsey and Granit Xhaka manned the middle of the park, could have benefited from someone similarly skilled at knitting the play together. It was Burnley who, certainly in the opening half, looked more coherent when working the ball from one penalty area to the other.
Cork was far from the only impressive Burnley performer. Tarkowski showed again why Michael Keane has not been missed since leaving for Everton and Gudmundsson, a mixture of energy and tricks down the right flank, posed a threat throughout. It was a credit to their tactical discipline, too, that they never allowed the game to get stretched as it progressed -- and nor did they fall into the trap of sitting too deep, at least until the last few minutes. When Arsenal did manage, at last, to peg them into their penalty area, they suffered the harshest of late twists.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.