It’s a match to remind me of my age. Almost thirty years ago, Bournemouth were seen off quite comfortably at Highbury in the League Cup. 3 – 0, remembered more for being the match before we drove to Dortmund for footballing long weekend. They lost 2 – 3 at home to Hamburg but that’s a tale for another day.
Bournemouth were in the old Division Two then and Dean Court was unfavourably compared to Stalag 17 in a letter of complaint to the local paper by my father. As a club they’ve been to Hull and back, and few will deny them their moment in the sun. The standard of teams below them make it likely that The Cherries will be around next season as well, although the way this campaign has unfurled, nothing is certain.
The same holds true at the top as it does at the bottom. Yesterday’s results mean this is ‘must-win’ match. Arsenal’s title hopes rest on taking three points this afternoon. Fail to do so and any lingering hopes of being crowned champions will surely fade away. It would leave the gap as it is now, eight points and even beating Leicester next weekend would leave Arsenal heavily reliant upon others.
Although a quick glance at the remaining fixtures makes you wonder if there really is a title race at all. Leicester, in pole position, face Arsenal next weekend and then have routine fixtures until the last three games. City, Spurs and Arsenal by contrast have trickier matches, facing each other to further muddy the waters. We’ve expected a team to go on a run and it’s Leicester who’ve broken from the pack. Can Arsenal respond?
The immediate answer is um, er, not sure really. A miserable January hasn’t improved in February. FA Cup progress is a glimmer of light but in the Premier League, it’s two steps backwards before stopping to tie our laces. Arsène’s biggest problem at the moment is in front of goal. Olivier Giroud is without a goal since Anfield and Theo Walcott is so out of form on the flanks that it’s questionable whether he would fare any better in front of goal.
At his press conference, Arsène tried to stay bullish but it isn’t a convincing call to arms,
We should take a lot of encouragement from that, even if sometimes in the recent games, we didn’t get the result we wanted.
We have to prepare without being obsessed with [scoring] – finishing is cyclic and if we create the same amount of chances we will score
The flaw is that if you don’t score, you don’t win. Statistics show that this season is Arsenal’s poorest in front of goal since the turn of the century and it’s a problem underlined by the respective goal differences of the top four. Arsenal’s is lowest to the extent that even a win today will barely scrape that deficit with Tottenham.
Creating chances isn’t a problem, or certainly wasn’t against Southampton but with the likes of Özil and Sanchez in the XI, I’d be more worried if it was. However, as the midweek draw proved, you can laud their play, praise the number of chances created but it counts for nought if the ball doesn’t end up in the back of the net.
It’s a recurring problem and this spell reminiscent of the run which cost Arsenal second place last season. With four games to go, level with Manchester City having played a game less, three games with a solitary goal undermined any aspirations which had been salvaged from a disastrous first half of the season. Yet again, a new year is bringing a different Arsenal, almost the total opposite of the one in the previous twelve months.
It’s not a new problem but no matter what the players, Arsène hasn’t found the answer.
In trying to do so, I don’t expect many changes today from the XI which faced Southampton. Per Mertesacker should return to the defence with Francis Coquelin into the middle with Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman’s partnership with Mathieu Flamini wasn’t a resounding success with both players eager to support the attack, all too often at the same time. Whether Ramsey’s game will improve with a more defensively minded partner will be a big question today.
Other than that, it’s toss of the coin between Giroud and Walcott. The former gets the nod for me, particularly with Theo’s finishing in the last two games underlining just how low his confidence has sunk. A goal would do wonders for his overall game but that will have to come from the bench.
It leaves the line-up:
Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Ramsey; Campbell, Özil, Sanchez; Giroud
Three points is all that’s needed today. The performance isn’t necessarily as important. Of course I’d like Arsenal to play the sumptuous passing football they are capable of but it’s only been sporadically displayed this season and we’re at a point where the results are all that count.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.