Granit Xhaka blunder and late VAR drama cost Arsenal in draw at Burnley

Nick Ames at Turf Moor
·4-min read

For connoisseurs of modern-day Arsenal’s foibles, this came close to a full house. A slickly worked opening goal, a parade of missed chances, a quite astounding act of self-immolation and enough late controversy to leave a legitimate sense of grievance hanging in the air:

It was all in afternoon’s work in Burnley but unless games like this are consigned to the past, the hard luck stories will translate into the mid-table finish that seems their likely resting place.

When Dani Ceballos battered Nick Pope’s left post with the final action of a chaotic added-time spell, Arsenal had to accept they had contrived their own misfortune. What a way they chose to do it and what fresh ignominy it was for Granit Xhaka, who was sent off when Burnley won at the Emirates in December and this time undid 39 minutes of complete control with a mistake no historical knowledge could quite foreshadow.

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Arsenal were ahead through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and should, particularly through an unusually wayward Bukayo Saka, have added a couple more when Xhaka’s radar malfunctioned.

They could congratulate themselves that a quick passing move from the back led to the opener but when Xhaka received possession from Bernd Leno during a sequence that was not leading anywhere they found themselves under pressure.

Had Xhaka, who was 12 yards out and facing his own goal, executed a first-time pass across the penalty area he would probably have succeeded in finding David Luiz. Instead he took a touch, allowing Chris Wood to close the angle, before trying to locate his teammate. The ball struck a surprised Wood before trickling past Leno.

“If someone makes a mistake because they want to play I will always support them,” Mikel Arteta said. “If someone is hiding I will not have that.”

Nobody would level that particular charge at Xhaka but there remain too many moments, for all the regular proclamations that he is a player reborn, when he takes leave of his senses. On the other hand it is fair to point out Xhaka was only carrying out his manager’s instructions. Arteta preaches the benefits of building from the six-yard box but there is a time and a place, particularly if your players are incapable of implementing the strategy reliably.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang squeezes in the opener.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang squeezes in the opener. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/EPA

“We just have to know the risk and the rules in certain areas and the types of balls we have to play,” Arteta said.

In fairness they had already judged them successfully, albeit with Burnley’s attackers less proactive, when Thomas Partey took a sixth-minute pass from Xhaka before threading through the midfield for Willian. The rejuvenated forward worked it left to Aubameyang, who was shown inside rather too easily by Matt Lowton. The striker then beat Pope, who got a weak hand to the ball, at his near post.

Aubameyang had settled the previous meeting between these two sides with an own goal so it appeared to be a day for slaying ghosts. But Saka prodded wide after messy defending and later failed to control an Aubameyang pass that would have sent him clear. Then Wood enjoyed his stroke of fortune – and it was not to be Burnley’s last.

They kept Arsenal at bay in the second-half but 16 minutes from time Nicolas Pépé tried to knock the ball past Erik Pieters and met his fellow substitute’s outstretched arm. It seemed a clear penalty but Andre Marriner and the VAR, Kevin Friend, disagreed, seemingly believing Pieters was too close to take evasive action.

“If that isn’t a penalty, then somebody explain what a penalty is,” Arteta said.

Everybody soon found out what a penalty is not, when Pieters deflected a Pépé volley on to the bar with his shoulder. Marriner immediately pointed to the spot and issued a red card; this time VAR reversed both decisions.

Between the two incidents, Pieters and Wood could have won the game for Burnley, Leno twice saving well, while Pépé miskicked the best chance of all after Kieran Tierney had laid it on a plate.

“I thought it was quiet so I would put Erik on, get in as many incidents as you can,” said a joking Sean Dyche.

Pieters could make a play for the headlines all he liked: the spotlight remained unwaveringly on Xhaka.