Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Erratic Arsenal avoid south coast humiliation

Regardless of the fact it came 50 hours after the conclusion of the win over Crystal Palace, Arsenal’s trip to Bournemouth was always going to be a tricky game. It had the potential to be a banana skin as the hosts fancied their chances having already beaten Liverpool at Dean Court this season. On a cold night with a tired squad, there was a fear that Arsenal would be there for the taking and for 65 minutes, those fears were realised. 
Bournemouth were quicker to the ball, sharper in attack and looked much more determined than Arsenal, and a 3-0 lead at the hour mark didn’t flatter the hosts. All three goals were eminently avoidable from an Arsenal perspective.
Charlie Daniels shouldn’t have been given so much space on the left, shouldn’t have been allowed to cut-in so easily and then shouldn’t have scored at the near post. Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin and Petr Cech didn’t cover themselves in glory. Although the penalty for Bournemouth’s second was a bit soft, it was definitely a foul and daft of Granit Xhaka to even make a challenge from behind. The third Bournemouth goal was probably a foul on Bellerin, considering the decision given for the penalty, but the Spaniard should have been stronger and then Petr Cech was beaten too easily again.
Across the pitch there were other problems with Francis Coquelin pinging a hamstring and Laurent Koscielny going off with cramp. Shkodran Mustafi had his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt as he looked like a man who hadn’t played for over a month, while the midfield couldn’t exert any control on the tempo of the game. It just felt like one of those nights where you were watching a car crash in slow motion.
As much as Arsenal were embarrassing for the first 65 minutes, it is worth saying that Bournemouth were excellent. Eddie Howe, until he took off Joshua King and tried to protect the lead, got his tactics right as he used pace up front to trouble Arsenal in behind the defence. Nathan Ake was also impressive at the back. But there is a vulnerability to Howe’s side, and while Arsenal were out of the game for much of the contest, as soon as the Gunners got some possession in the second half, exerted some pressure and scored the first goal, there was a sense of worry and panic around the ground.
There were plenty of negatives about the first 65 minutes and questions do have to be asked as to why Arsenal performed like that. But having been to away games like Southampton and Sheffield Wednesday in recent seasons when, in similar situations, Arsenal went down without a fight and meekly surrendered after going a few goals down, I was pleased and relieved to see the Gunners actually show some fight and hunger to turn the game around on Tuesday night. After the game two days earlier, it would have been the easy option to write the game off after going 3-0 down and accept that they were too tired to turn the game round, but it is to the team’s credit that they salvaged something from the wreckage of an atrocious hour.
I thought Aaron Ramsey stepped up well later in the game as he drove Arsenal forward from midfield, while Alexis constantly worried the Bournemouth defence. With Lucas Perez on, Arsenal effectively went to a 4-4-2 with the Spaniard playing alongside Olivier Giroud with Alexis roaming from the left.
The first goal came from a decent cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain that was well attacked by Giroud. Alexis followed in and headed Giroud’s flick-on beyond Artur Boruc. The second goal followed quickly as a lovely flick over the defence from Giroud was dispatched brilliantly on the volley into the far corner by Lucas Perez. 
Dan Gosling had a chance for Bournemouth to wrap up the points wth ten minutes to go, but moments later the hosts put themselves under pressure as captain Simon Francis lunged in with a daft tackle on Aaron Ramsey. While his studs didn’t make direct contact with the Welshman, it was a dangerous challenge that was out-of-control and reckless. Michael Oliver did the right thing in sending him off, and while Bournemouth have appealed to the FA to get the red card rescinded, I can’t see it being overturned.
Arsenal kept pushing and with Mustafi and Gabriel virtually playing as two more centre-forwards, the equaliser came in injury time. Xhaka’s chip into the penalty area was headed brilliantly into the bottom corner by Giroud. He was under immense pressure from the centre-back but managed to guide his header beyond Boruc superbly. He’s had to be patient for opportunities this season, but Giroud has scored some huge goals this season. You do wonder where we’d be without his interventions against Sunderland, Manchester United, West Brom and now Bournemouth. 
It’s after a game like this that it becomes clear why fans of other teams think Arsenal fans moan quite a bit. There have been a few Gooners with nothing but criticism for Olivier Giroud because of his celebration for the third goal, and while he could have run straight back to the centre-circle, it misses the point a bit. Without the Frenchman on Tuesday night, Arsenal would have lost that game. He scored one and assisted the other two, and if the rest of the squad gave as much and were as committed on the field as Giroud, I don’t think they’d have been 3-0 down in the first place. 
Generally, the amount of talent a player has is nearly impossible to quantify, but there are still some players who clearly have a lot of talent but don’t make the most of it in their career. Olivier Giroud strikes me as a player who hasn’t been blessed with a world class talent for the game, but he has worked incredibly hard to be the player he is today and has become a damn good centre-forward for the amount of talent he has. 
The swell of opinion I’ve seen from Arsenal fans after the game has generally been negative, and in the big picture of the title race, it is undoubtedly two points dropped. But honestly, my feeling after the game is definitely more positive than negative. We always want Arsenal to look like they care in those difficult situations, and they pulled through on Tuesday night.