Are Arsenal in a relegation fight? That question may come to look stupid in the coming months. But this dismal defeat plumbs a new depth and it is hard to see how the current set of players, who throw Mikel Arteta’s trust back in his face week after week, dig themselves out of the mire.
They had sought a goal from their struggling captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang; they just did not expect it to be headed into his own net 15 minutes after Granit Xhaka had changed the game’s complexion with an idiotic red card for violent conduct against Ashley Westwood. It made a deserved win for Burnley, and their first against Arsenal since 1974. For their part, Arsenal have lost four successive home games for the first time since 1959. The records are being smashed; the team itself just looks broken.
Arteta had spoken glowingly of his players’ response in training to last weekend’s possession-heavy but opportunity-light defeat at Spurs, also offering short shrift to the hardly outlandish idea that senior squad members had been letting him down. So perhaps it was little surprise that, except for the injured Thomas Partey, the derby day starters were invited out for another turn. Presumably the logic was that, against a side as goalshy as Burnley, Arsenal might be trusted to make use of what nous they do have.
Any such idea should have been exposed as folly within 14 minutes. When Robbie Brady was allowed to shift the ball on to his left foot it looked every inch the kind of position Burnley’s two bustling strikers, Chris Wood and Jay Rodriguez, might look to exploit. Brady’s inswinging cross was exceptional and, after Gabriel Magalhães unaccountably chose to step out of position, Wood was left completely unmarked in front of the posts. He did not even need to jump but, perhaps taking his eye off the flight, glanced wide of Bernd Leno’s goal with his shoulder.
It was a sizeable let-off for Arsenal, who had begun brightly if with little conviction. Alexandre Lacazette, again given the No 10 position, miscued an attempted volley from Willian’s header down in the opening minutes and Aubameyang’s angled shot was deflected wide in the aftermath. For a period after Wood’s miss they began to operate more crisply and had their own reasons to regret not being ahead by the interval.
Much has been made of Arsenal’s unsuccessful crosses in the past fortnight, but when the delivery is on point and the recipient is clearly identifiable there is nothing remotely wrong with that method of construction. Bukayo Saka proved the point with a clever, flat ball that found Rob Holding in space 15 yards out. Holding nodded a foot over the top. There seemed more prospect of an opener when Kieran Tierney, haring to the by-line after Saka could not reach a through pass, cut back accurately but Nick Pope saved Lacazette’s stabbed effort with his legs.
Gabriel then headed wide when, in rising above Burnley’s defence, he had arguably done the hard part. But the list of scares for Sean Dyche’s side extended no further and they had one more sight of their own when Holding blocked a meaty volley from Rodriguez.
In truth Arsenal had just not shown enough. They needed cool heads and responsible leadership to guide them into a winning position but had to make do with Xhaka, whose dismissal came during a period in which a breakthrough had started to look realistic. It was hard to tell exactly what enraged Xhaka during a melee that sparked after he had fouled the breaking Dwight McNeil. A VAR check showed conclusively, though, that he had grabbed Ashley Westwood around the throat and the outcome was in little doubt once Graham Scott had looked at his pitchside monitor.
Prior to that, Arsenal had started to make Pope work regularly. Aubameyang teed up Tierney for a shot that was saved low down before heading straight at the keeper himself. Saka then forced a parry after Willian had centred. Moments later Xhaka disgraced himself and now the game’s balance was completely uncertain.
Burnley sensed an immediate turning of the screw and might have succeeded if Ben Mee had got proper contact on a left-sided corner; soon, though, they got it right from the same source. Mohamed Elneny had just been cleared of his own potential red card when Westwood delivered again. Aubameyang rose to challenge at the near post and although he won the ball, he could only watch in horror as it skimmed off his head and nestled in Leno’s far corner. The first boos of the Covid-19 era could be heard in the Emirates stands.
Aubameyang slipped when a half-chance to make amends beckoned. Arsenal huffed, puffed and left at an ebb lower than almost anyone present could remember.