Monday, November 28, 2016

Alexis leads Arsenal back to winning ways

Due to the stronger squad Arsene Wenger has at his disposal this season, and the degree of experimentation that is occurring in the centre of the midfield with Santi Cazorla still out injured, the Arsenal manager has been able to make more changes to his starting line-ups this season to keep the players fresh. At times in November, this has affected some of the team’s fluidity in attack, but in the long-run, not running players into the ground should be beneficial.
There are four players in the spine of the team that are immune to rotation though, such is their importance. Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny continue to be the number one partnership at the heart of Arsenal’s defence, while Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are irreplaceable. The latter of those has had injury scares recently, but his willingness to play makes it very hard to drop him. Plus, even though Arsenal have had a decent-enough month results-wise, three draws in a row meant that a win was needed against Bournemouth on Sunday, so Alexis was never going to be one of the seven changes made from the midweek stalemate with PSG.
The Chilean returned to the centre-forward position he has occupied for the majority of the season, despite the good form of Olivier Giroud, and led from the front with his usual high-tempo pressing and all-action game. With both teams still settling into the game in the early stages, it was Alexis who made the difference as he closed down Bournemouth’s centre-back Steve Cook, who in-turn played a short back-pass towards his goalkeeper when under pressure. Alexis pounced on the opportunity and calmly rolled the ball past Adam Federici. Arsenal had been much more static in their closing down of the defence in the draws against Tottenham and Manchester United, so it was great to see that element of the defensive game return and it immediately brought a reward.
One player who did get brought into the starting XI as one of Arsene Wenger’s changes, somewhat surprisingly, was Mathieu Debuchy. The French full-back hadn’t started a Premier League game in over a year because of the form of Hector Bellerin, injuries and a loan spell at Bordeaux. With Carl Jenkinson given a breather after back-to-back games as he still gets back to full fitness from a long injury lay-off, Debuchy was given a chance. He started the game tidily enough, but broke down after 15 minutes and his game and, depending on the severity of the injury, his Arsenal career came to an end.
Debuchy has been desperately unlucky with injuries since he joined the club, and that in his absence, a young Spaniard quickly turned himself into the best right-back in the Premier League. A move or another loan spell was surely on the cards anyway in January, so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t leave on recovering from the latest setback. Even though Jenkinson was being rested, it was still a surprise that he wasn’t at least on the bench, with Arsene Wenger knowing that playing Debuchy was a risk, with just one under-23 appearance this season. It meant that Gabriel had to play as an emergency full-back, and while he took a bit of time to adapt to the role, and obviously didn’t offer much going forward, he deserves a lot of credit for how he performed in the unfamiliar position.
Before half-time, Arsenal got slightly nervy and allowed Bournemouth some possession, but the Gunners weren’t at fault for the equaliser that came before the break. After Arsenal cleared a corner, there was a debatable challenge on Mesut Ozil, but referee Mike Jones waved play on. Moments later when the ball came back into the box, Callum Wilson jumped into Nacho Monreal and then flung himself to the ground, but the referee instantly gave a spot kick. It was a ludicrous decision as neither player had control of the ball and it was just a 50-50 tussle for possession. Monreal did nothing to merit conceding a penalty. It was truly baffling. Wilson scored from the spot and Arsenal needed to regain composure having changed the right-back and conceded a joke of a penalty. 
Even though Alexis fired a thunderous effort off the bar from a tight angle just before half-time, the hosts didn’t really regain control and fluidity in the game until the second-half. Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny became increasingly influential and Mesut Ozil got on the ball in more dangerous positions. It was the fleet-footed shimmying of the German that helped unlock the defence for Arsenal to take the lead again just past the hour-mark.
Ozil confused Brad Smith and clipped a cross to the back post to pick out Nacho Monreal. I still can’t quite decide if Monreal entirely meant to then centre the ball in the way that he did, but the Spaniard produced a perfectly weighted loft into the six-yard box and Theo Walcott couldn’t miss with the downward header. It completed a great week for him personally following the birth of his second child, but I have got a bone to pick with Theo at the moment. Stop going against the club’s sleeve length tradition. It looks wrong. Shkodran Mustafi rolls his long sleeves up, you can do the same.
Bournemouth carried a threat for the rest of the game, and Arsenal needed Petr Cech to deny a Benik Afobe header, but the Gunners defended pretty well for most of the second half, aided by Xhaka and Elneny in front of them. The centre of Arsenal’s midfield remains a conundrum without Santi Cazorla, but Xhaka seems to now be up with the pace of the Premier League, so hopefully will get a run in the team. But with Ramsey and Coquelin eager to start, what Arsene Wenger does his midfield is anyone’s guess at the moment.
What he does up front is less of a surprise, as Olivier Giroud is regularly getting effective 20-minute cameos off the bench, moving Alexis wide for the last part of the game. The move paid off again as, even though the Frenchman didn’t score, he bagged a nice assist with a cut-back for Alexis to slot in the third goal. 
After the draws, it was a very welcome win, and if Arsenal progress in the EFL Cup on Wednesday, they’ll complete an unbeaten November in all competitions. Alexis Sanchez and the other key men in the spine of the team are very unlikely to appear against Southampton, but even if their replacements perform brilliantly, no-one will oust the Chilean from the team. As emphasised by the win on Sunday, he’s just too important.