Arsenal 1 – 0 Bournemouth
A match which saw many boxes ticked left as many questions unanswered. We’ve reached the heady heights of third and no-one is quite sure how.
Yesterday encapsulated our season in one game. Bournemouth were as supine as Liege in the first half. It’s baffling that we went into the interval only one ahead. Not because we missed a host of chances but because of how bad the Cherries were.
It might have been 2 – 0. Inexplicably, VAR refused to overrule the hapless match official when Nicolas Pepe was felled in the area. At the heart of the matter is the PGMO officials; the same referees who routinely make bad decisions in real-time are doing the same in the video booth.
But that doesn’t excuse our own performance.
Before the match, Eddie Howe claimed he wanted his side to avoid mistakes of previous visits when Bournemouth lost the game after conceding an early goal. His players listen to him as intently as ours do to Unai.
Sideshow Bob headed home from a rare well-delivered set-piece. Nicolas Pepe can’t score – and it isn’t through lack of effort – hit a sweet corner, Luiz headed home, guiding the ball across the goalkeeper. An early goal settled us into sustained spells of possession although we didn’t cause many moments of genuine concern for them.
The second half was the polar opposite. Bournemouth started quickly; Howe must have put a rocket up their backsides during the interval. We retreated, in a manner not dissimilar to the second-half collapse at Watford. Where was the leadership on the pitch? Certainly, there was none from the captain.
We held out, largely thanks to Leno’s alertness from a tight angle, Guendouzi’s late timely tackle and Chambers size 11 intervening on the goalline.
We, the other hand, didn’t manage an effort of note from the hour-mark when Chambers skewed a volley wide. Aubameyang struck the post but was offside so it wasn’t worthy of the name.
There’s no question in my mind that Chambers was the best player on the park yesterday. He was decisive in the tackle but as eager to support the attack. It was his awareness that created Aubameyang’s late chance, intercepting Bournemouth’s attempts to pass out from the back.
However, his was one of the few bright spots. We kept a clean sheet and the players deserve some credit for that. It wasn’t a convincing performance. Maybe that’s how we begin with the first XI. Maybe that’s how we follow on from three clean sheets in the recent cup matches.
That question will be answered in a fortnight’s time at Bramall Lane. Whatever these players think they have faced before, that fixture is going to feature a no-nonsense approach from the home side. Defenders and midfielders who shrink in the face of pressure need not board the coach for that match.
It’s a tough gig when a coach guides a team to third in the Premier League. Guide is a polite way of saying stumbling. We’re the wide receiver tripping at the five-yard line and just about landing in the endzone.
While we’re unbeaten in eight but it’s a struggle to claim we’re in form. A look at those matches show the cup games were comfortable victories but in the league itself, we have yet to put in a good performance this season, let alone string a few together.
Form is Underpinned by Performances
It is remarkably similar to last season’s 20-odd games unbeaten. It was hotch-potch, hit and miss; you scratch your head wondering how we didn’t lose or how we won. Sometimes in the same game.
Therein is the conundrum of Unai Emery’s Arsenal. We do not have a defined style of play. It’s hard for the players to build confidence when we lurch from the good to the bad and sometimes ugly. In a results business, it’s the final score which counts but even then, it’s performances which build those long runs.
If you aren’t playing well for sustained periods but still win, the players don’t take confidence from the results. They know at some point, the whole kit and caboodle will unravel.
That, to me, is where we’re at right now. Deja vu.
Which is why this morning brings a mass of contradictory feelings. Happy at the result, with the league position, especially since there are a few players who won’t be in the side at Sheffield United.
Yet I wonder how long it will last? Emery deserves the plaudits for the cup performances but brickbats for our league form. It underlines that he is a cup specialist, used to coaching teams to peak for a one-off, with different tactics every match in the competition.
However, league football requires a basic plan to be consistently applied. Ours, at present, seems to be one which requires a big gap between the attack and everyone else.
Emery picked a team yesterday mindful of the exertions the youngsters put in over the past week. I have no issue with the one-off selection taking that into account. That becomes a problem when underperforming senior players block the young ‘uns route to the starting line-up.
Tough Times Require Hard Choices
There’s no doubt the Spaniard has some tough choices ahead. Holding, Bellerin and Tierney are all in contention for places after the international break. Which one of Sokratis and Luiz makes way? One has to go because playing with a back-three seems out of the question.
Emery is hiding behind the fitness levels of the young trio as a reason not to select them. But in a fortnight’s time, that won’t be the issue. He wasn’t ever going to say the older pair are on their last legs but he can’t avoid making the decision forever.
As for the Spaniard’s claim it was up to Xhaka and himself to improve the perception of his captain, it didn’t work. Eight games into the season and yesterday’s yellow card puts him on the cusp of a one-match suspension.
At ten cautions, it’s a two-match ban. Before Christmas, he’ll miss three games. What is the next level after that? The book hitting him squarely on the head in the hope it knocks sense into him?
I doubt it.
So where does that all leave us?
Third in the Premier League, a clean sheet, eight unbeaten with a massive ‘BUT’ hovering over us.
Let’s hope that when it all restarts in a fortnight that we can begin to erase those letters.