Monday, February 8, 2016

Back to winning ways at Bournemouth

It wasn’t a classic, but it was pretty comfortable. After four league games without a win and three without a goal, that is all Arsenal needed the 2-0 win against Bournemouth to be. A good performance would have been nice, but with Leicester threatening to pull away and Tottenham also appearing in the title race, Arsenal simply had to win on the south coast to set up a hugely important clash with the Foxes at the Emirates next weekend.
While it feels like Arsenal haven’t had the rub of the green in terms of refereeing decisions this season, there is no doubt that the win owed a bit to Kevin Friend’s reluctance to send off Mathieu Flamini early on in the game after the Frenchman launched into a tackle two-footed with the studs showing. It was a bizarre thing for the midfielder to do, even if he did get the ball, because if the referee had brandished a red card, he could have no complaints. His position in the team is questioned at the best of times, but if Flamini had left the team with ten men again for the majority of a game, you’d have to question if he’d ever play for the team again, barring injury to others.
As it was, Arsenal got lucky and he stayed on the field. To his credit, Flamini managed to survive for the rest of the game on a yellow card tightrope, although there was a hairy moment in the first half as he dived into a challenge and fortunately missed man and ball, but as an experienced player he should have known better. With the score at 2-0, Francis Coquelin came on to sure up the midfield in the second half, and with more minutes under his belt, will surely start against Leicester next weekend.
While Flamini’s partnership with Aaron Ramsey has had its struggles in recent weeks, the Welshman looked to up his game against Bournemouth as he put in an excellent shift in midfield and looked to be the link man between the defence and the attacking four of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil, Alexis and Giroud. He had a hand in both goals as Arsenal scored two within 90 seconds of each other to effectively kill the game off in the first half.
The first goal came following a lovely floated pass towards the back post, where Olivier Giroud was determined to get his head to the ball, even getting ahead of Alexis Sanchez to do so, creating space for Mesut Ozil to glide into and slam the ball into the roof of the net as it dropped in the penalty area. After the team had gone a bit of time without a goal in the league, it was an emphatic finish to end the drought. It was almost as if even Mesut Ozil had had enough of faffing around trying to score the perfect goal and he just leathered the ball in. Although it being Ozil, I’ve rarely see a player look so graceful when finishing with such power.
The goal was like a massive release for the Gunners and it was almost as if it reminded the team why they were up at the sharp end of the table in the first place. 88 seconds after the first goal, the lead was doubled with another superb piece of finishing. Arsenal swept forward, and when the ball broke to Aaron Ramsey, he calmly laid it into the path of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who, despite going away from goal, managed to drill the ball back across the goalkeeper and into the net via the inside of the post.
It was a bit harsh on Joel Campbell to have the Ox start in his place, but not surprising that Theo Walcott wasn’t given a run out on the right after his midweek efforts from the bench. With competition for a place on that side, it was vital that the Ox made an impression in the game, and a first away goal for Arsenal was a great way to do it. He has so much potential, and could be a truly sensational player, but it’s not quite happened for him this season. He is the sort of player that can grab this season by the scruff of the neck and make things happen in the title race. If he gets a run of games and starts to make things happen, he could be an important player for the rest of the season. The talent is there, so hopefully he can take the confidence of scoring and view this run-in as an opportunity to make a difference rather than getting bogged down by pressure, as seemed to happen earlier in the season.
Having gone 2-0 up, Arsenal were able to control the game, and having picked Gabriel as the quicker centre-back, there wasn’t much of a chance for Benik Afobe to stretch the defence against his former club. While I think Per Mertesacker will return in time to the back four, it does feel like Arsene Wenger is happy to give Gabriel a run of games almost to prepare for the pace of Leicester City and Barcelona’s front lines coming later this month. The Brazilian now won’t go into those games cold and will have developed his understanding with the rest of the back four for those massive games.
At the end of the game, Petr Cech offered another reminder of how good he is with a cracking double save to preserve his clean sheet. For all the talk of Arsenal’s failures in front of goal, they’ve now only conceded one goal in four games, and that was the one conceded while the team were still rocking when down to ten men against Chelsea. Leicester are scoring pretty freely at the moment, but they will face a much tougher test on Sunday.
That game with Leicester is huge, as if Arsenal lose, I’m struggling to see how the Gunners could still have title aspirations when eight points behind the leaders with 12 games to go. Stranger things have happened, but it would be very difficult. Conversely, a win would leave Arsenal lurking just two points off the leaders, and would crank the pressure up on the Foxes. Leicester might not crack under that pressure, as they’ve certainly showed few signs of looking nervous this season, but Arsenal have to do everything they can to apply some pressure. The win at Bournemouth was at least a good starting point.