Bournemouth 1 Arsenal 2, Vitality Stadium.
In the weeks prior to their trip to the south coast, the breaks had been gradually applied to Unai Emery’s start at Arsenal. His team remain unbeaten since August, but the side’s fresh spirit has dissipated across recent fixtures. The home draw with Wolves before the international break was their third in a row and left them without a Premier League win in over a month.
This was Bournemouth’s first game at home for three weeks and they too arrived in a semi-slump. The last time they were here, Marcus Rashford stole all three points for Manchester United at the death and, a week later, they suffered the ignominy of a defeat to toothless Newcastle. Eddie Howe is much admired for a reason, rightly, but his Bournemouth have a habit of suffering through the winter months. 2018-19 has been a great success so far, but that familiar trend is threatening to reappear.
Sunday brought another defeat. Bournemouth were Arsenal’s equal for long periods at Dean Court, but fell just short after a performance which will have encouraged Howe but which, again, left him with nothing.
The hosts never quite benefitted from the bounce of the ball and the game’s opening goal was a case in point, when Jefferson Lerma inadvertently thundered Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s cross into his own net. The ripple effect was dramatic: the eager Bournemouth press dropped a notch and, having been inhibited, Arsenal’s football began to flower. Before half-time, Alex Iwobi’s curling effort had to be beaten away by Asmir Begovic and Mkhitaryan himself might have done better with a long-range chance which he clunked into the roof of the stand.
Emery had spent some of his week rallying against Arsenal weaknesses of the past. In the latter Arsene Wenger years, he suggested, defensive structure had been sacrificed on the alter of his predecessor’s ideals and his task, as he saw it, was to build a more pragmatic, rounded side. Inconveniently for him, Bournemouth’s equaliser came straight from Arsenal’s hall of shame: the ball was lost carelessly high up the field, a counter-attack was allowed to develop, and at the end of it Josh King was able to open his body and shape an emphatic finish beyond Bernd Leno. Right on the stroke of half-time, right when Arsenal finally had a grip on the game.
It was a goal so typically Arsenal in its concession. A smarter side would surely have pursued the play with more intent, or at least offered a tactical foul or two in response. Not Arsenal. Still not Arsenal. It’s a problem which has transcended different formations and different players and, apparently, now managers too.
Bournemouth had done just about enough to deserve that parity. Their possession-based style and quick breaks are well-established parts of their repertoire, but David Brooks has certainly added a creative flourish to their armoury. Already, just months after joining from Sheffield United, Brooks is providing a craft which his side previously didn’t possess. It’s a slight simplification, but it’s tempting to see his light touches – the turns, the flicks, the imagination – as the key difference between this Bournemouth and the sides of the past. Between a team who often kept the ball for the sake of it, and one who now use possession to create chances with far more regularity.
Brooks is wafer thin, childlike in stature, and Arsenal certainly tested his resilience early. He was rattled by a few challenges and, most notably, shaken by a 50-50 with Sead Kolasinac on the near touchling. But he recovered from those bumps and bruises and, before eventually being replaced, he was a near-consistent influence on the game. Wales and Ryan Giggs have a very fine player in the making and Bournemouth have more validation for their recruiting strategy.
The trouble for them, though, as it is for so many sides trapped beneath the Premier League’s glass ceiling, is that they need so much to go right in these heavyweight encounters. Just as their performance against Manchester United deserved better, Arsenal took advantage of a brief lapse to re-take the lead. Alex Iwobi cut the area between full-back and centre-half, the overlapping Kolasinac got the byline first, and his cut-back was prodded in by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the back-post. Once again, it was in the small margins that the big club’s superior talent told: they had the ability to create the slightly better chances and, inevitably, the extra quality to finish them.
Bournemouth did mount a response. Their approach regressed after Brooks had limped from the field, but Lerma came within a post’s width of atoning for his slapstick own-goal and deep within stoppage-time Leno had to be alert to claw a looping header out from his top-corner, but Arsenal held on.
The true context of their victory, really, was provided by Tottenham’s win over Chelsea on Saturday evening. The first North London derby of the season is now a week away and Mauricio Pochettino will theorise that his side, suddenly playing with some much speed and intent, should match up very nicely with an Arsenal defence still riddled with gaps and who invariably look vulnerable to pace.
Arsenal, then, remain a work in progress. How far into their recovery they actually are will be shown very shortly.