Sunday, February 07, 2016

Arsenal Finally Get Back to Winning Ways (2-0 at Bournemouth)

Arsenal came into the game today having gone three games without a goal and four without a win. They absolutely needed all three points to keep pace with Tottenham and Leicester City above them while Bournemouth tried to push further up the table along the route to survival. After a nervy start on the more congested Vitality pitch, with Flamini almost earning a straight red with a reckless two footed tackle, Arsenal started to grow into the game and it was the most expensive player on the pitch who scored first, as Mesut Ozil latched onto a Giroud header in the box and pounded it past the goalkeeper (for their first goal in 328 minutes of league football). Less than two minutes later, an interception from a poor clearance led to a second. It started with Ozil on the left with the ball ultimately rebounding to Ramsey at the top of the box. He laid it off to a charging Ox who shot across goal to the far post. It was 2-0 inside 24 minutes as Arsenal looked to move closer to Leicester before the key matchup next weekend. In the 27th minute, Bournemouth almost pulled one back as an excellent shot from Arter was just saved by Cech. Daniels made a good run in the 39th minute leading to a half chance for Ritchie, though his shot flew high over from the edge of the box. In stoppage time, Cech came to the rescue again, as some lax defending by Monreal almost allowed Smith to get Bournemouth to within one.

Bournemouth started the second half brightly and had a few more half chances as Arsenal laid back in their own half but still left plenty of channels open to penetrate their defensive lines. In the 54th minute, Sanchez shot across goal from distance and only a fine save kept the Gunners from extending their lead, with Giroud sending a powerful header right at the keeper from the resultant counter. Sanchez got free down the left again in the 60th minute, but sent it across goal without anyone there to latch on. In the 67th minute, Coquelin came on for Ox in a clear defensive move, but one that will be important if Arsenal are to get back to the top of the table, as while Flamini certainly brings passion and effort to his game, Coquelin is the better option in the DM position. Arsenal solidified their defense and got forward on several occasions, though each attack seemed to fall apart after a poor pass or dispossession, with Ramsey and Sanchez the two biggest offenders in this regard. In the 81st minute, Gibbs came on for a largely ineffective Sanchez, further shoring up a defense that has been relatively solid since the 3-3 draw with Liverpool (only conceding the one goal to Chelsea a man down in their past four games). As the game drew toward its conclusion, Arsenal appeared to lose their cool a little, unable to hold onto the ball and looking a little shakier on the defensive end. In the 89th minute, King almost got one back after an excellent cross from the right, though Arsenal soon found themselves on the counter, only denied as Ramsey took too long in making up his mind free on goal. A cutback would have made it three.

A minute into extra time, Arsenal had an excellent double save from Cech to keep Bournemouth out and keep their 12th clean sheet of the season. With 30 seconds left in the game, Walcott inexplicably came on for Giroud, mere moments before the final whistle. And so Arsenal held on for the 2-0 win and moved above Manchester City and into third, even with Tottenham and five points behind league leaders Leicester. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Rating the Performances: Ozil has now scored six goals, to go with his 16 league assists. Last week he almost scored on two occasions in the first half, only to be denied by excellent goalkeeping. As is occasionally the case with the German, he appears intent on going for goal himself at the moment. He is making intelligent runs and opening space for the other forwards, who really need to take better advantage of this more aggressive style of play, one that reminds of Ramsey in the Fall of 2013, before an injury he has never fully recovered from, at least in regard to his blistering form at the time. Ramsey, in fact, appears far off his best in recent games, perhaps best represented on a counter in the 75th minute, when a perfect pass from Ozil was bundled by Sanchez, picked up by Ramsey and then fumbled terribly just outside the box before he passed the ball backwards to a Bournemouth defender. He did get the assist for Ox’s second, but was otherwise far below his best, too often pushing too far forward and leaving Arsenal exposed behind him.

Sanchez, as well, is seemingly far away from his best at the moment. Allowances should be made for the fact he is just coming back from his hamstring injury but he really isn’t having a great season beyond a truncated hot streak way back in October. He only has six league goals and one assist in 17 games, though he has chipped in more in the Champions League and FA Cup (4 goals and 5 assists in 6). In this game, he was free on goal in the 13th minute, but shot over from an acute angle and had several other openings that went for nought. On top of this, he is giving the ball away at an alarming rate of late, already the leader in that category across the entire division before his injury.

Giroud appears to be in a mini-slump himself that is certainly cause for concern and again calls into question Wenger’s decision to not sign a striker in either of the past two windows (or really past several). Giroud has 12 league goals and 3 assists in 25 league appearances (though he too has been better in the UCL and FA cup, where he has 6 goals in 7 appearances) but has gone scoreless in his last five and only scored in two of his last 10 games. Walcott’s form has been even worse, and he only has three goals and two assists in 19 league appearances, having scored in only one of his last 18 appearances in all competitions. Ox did give Arsenal their second goal and it was his first away goal ever! He clearly has the talent to become one of the better midfielders in England, but will need to finish more of his chances and eliminate his penchant for losing possession in dangerous positions and poor choices on the counter. Goals like this do remind that the potential is there to keep improving and it was an important one, as Arsenal have not lost after being up 2-0 in five years. Koscielny, Monreal and Bellerin were solid on the defensive end and Cech, as usual, helped the Gunners across the line.

2. Gabriel Has Work to Do: Gabriel was largely impressive earlier in the season in relief of Mertesacker or Koscielny (except in the Chelsea game, when he allowed Costa to goad him into a red), but he has looked a little out of sort over the last few appearances, often caught out of position or making ill-advised attempts at a tackle far from the goal that leave the side exposed. Of course he is currently covering for Mertesacker, whose own mistake essentially handed the game to Chelsea a few weeks ago. Gabriel was part of another clean sheet for the Gunners, though that was thanks more to a more defensive approach after scoring the second goal and more impressive goalkeeping from Cech. Gabriel still has time to work on his positioning and could be a long-term replacement for Mertesacker, but has a way to go before he is there.

3. Bournemouth Home Woes: Bournemouth have the third worst home record in the league and suffered their fifth loss of the campaign on their own ground. While they often looked dangerous going forward, they were unable to create many clear cut chances or finish the couple they had. Even after this loss, though, they are still five points clear of the bottom three and it is clearly the absence of key injured players that has contributed to their struggles this season, though ex-Gunner Afobe has certainly, in the absence of Calum Wilson, improved their threat up front (he had three in three coming into the game). Matt Ritchie loves to get a shot on, and almost scored in the first half, but he needs to improve the percentage on target if he is going to help keep the team up and they still do need to shore up the defense in some games. However, overall, Howe must believe that his side have enough to stay up and invest more in the club next summer.

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