It was difficult to ignore the Mesut Özil return. Arsenal’s supposed marquee player was back – given his first start since 11 November after a back problem and his high-profile omission for tactical reasons against Tottenham in the Carabao 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 strong-arm 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 the 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 in the Premier League this season and 14 in all competitions.
Burnley made life difficult for Arsenal. Ashley Barnes pulled a goal back for them and when the board went up to show five minutes of stoppage-time, there was no little 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. From their perspective, this was more like it.
The Özil soap opera was the most prominent subplot 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 contact 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 lineups 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 Barnes to play in Ashley Westwood. One-on-one with Bernd Leno, the midfielder was off target.
Arsenal had flickered at the outset with Joe Hart denying Ainsley Maitland-Niles and James Tarkowski scrambling the loose ball clear before Mohamed Elneny saw a header blocked.
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 gets his edge from playing on the edge while 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. Elneny won it back, with help from Özil and, when the former played it to Matteo Guendouzi, the counterattack was on. Guendouzi found Kolasinac, he moved it inside to Lacazette and on it went to Aubameyang. The finish flicked off Ben Mee and flew past Hart.
Burnley refused to lie down. They knew that Arsenal were vulnerable. Sokratis needed to make a saving tackle on Chris Wood after a defensive breakdown on a Burnley free-kick but the visitors scored shortly afterwards. After Mee’s square header, Barnes was crowded out only for Kevin Long to win the ball back off the substitute, Lucas Torreira. When it broke, Barnes lashed home.
Jack Cork fluffed a half-chance with a wild shot but Burnley did not manage to create anything clearcut for the equaliser and the last word would go to Iwobi.