After all the (entirely justified) grumbling from Arsenal fans in the two weeks since the humbling at Liverpool, it was essential that Arsenal produce a strong response. A controlled, dare I say comfortable, 3 nil win against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth was exactly what the doctor ordered, and there are several positives to take from this. Which is not to say everything was perfect, and certain long-standing issues continue to be a problem, and could have been exploited by a better team.
Crucial to Arsenal’s better performance were the modifications made to the defence, both in terms of personnel and positioning, that helped the team defensively and offensively.
Moving Mustafi to the middle of the back 3
When fit, Arsene Wenger was tending to play Laurent Koscielny in the middle of the back 3, given that he is by far our best centre-back. But on Saturday, he changed things up, moving Shkodran Mustafi taking up the position in the centre, flanked by Koscielny and Monreal.
As our own Nate Smith argued in his Talking Points this week, this meant we had two defenders protecting the channels, both of whom are quick and excellent readers of the game. Balls into the channels are the main threat Arsenal faces on the counter-attack, especially with our wing-backs high up the pitch, and defensive midfield non-existent. Koscielny and Monreal are particularly good at interceptions (Koscielny managed 4 in this game, Monreal 3, and were the top interceptors by a distance last season), which are invaluable in dealing with balls into the channel. Their cooler heads also mean that they are less likely to make mistakes and let a man in behind them, isolating the middle centre-back – see for example the way in which Rob Holding was exposed by Liverpool and, for that matter, Leicester, and Mustafi in the goal scored by Stoke.
The good passing ability of both players should also help, given how reliant on wing play Arsenal’s attacks have become. Koscielny and Monreal can pick better passes to the wing-backs or inside forwards, and Koscielny proved this with his pass to Mesut Ozil that led to the second goal, while Monreal similarly played the ball to Ramsey who set Kolasinac away for the first.
Mustafi’s interception game is not that strong, instead relying more on tackling to win the ball – he averaged 6 more tackles than Koscielny last season despite playing 7 fewer games, and likes to step up and make aggressive challenges – which helps him win a lot of duels, aerial and otherwise, but which also leaves the defence more exposed. Switching him to the middle of the 3, however, utilises his defensive strengths – he made 5 successful tackles against Bournemouth, for instance, and he can step up to win these tackles safe in the knowledge that Koscielny and Monreal are there to cover for any mistakes.
Mustafi’s willingness to step up in the middle also helped Granit Xhaka, who once again struggled to convince. He misplaced 20 of his 73 passes, and only made 2 tackles and 1 interception. But with Mustafi pressing up, there was always a muscular, aggressive defensive presence in the middle of the field, which helped snuff out any chances that Xhaka’s profligacy might have otherwise caused. It should be noted though, that against better teams than the Cherries, who were utterly woeful on the day, Xhaka’s errors would have had worse consequences.
Playing Kolasinac at LWB (finally)
One of the chief absurdities of Arsenal thus far this season was the squad selection for the wing-back positions. Bellerin was playing at left-wing back to accommodate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, and neither performed with distinction. Which was surprising given Sead Kolasinac was available throughout, and as earmarked in the very first Inquest, he looked the real deal in that position. Kolasinac demonstrated this on Saturday, putting in a powerhouse performance that was crucial to the outcome of the game.
His early assist for Danny Welbeck included all his positive qualities – positioning, pace, strength and ability to pick out a player. He proceeded to dominate his flank defensively and contributed to a number of attacks going forward. I had expressed doubts about whether he would immediately adapt to the pace of the Premier League, and while Bournemouth never looked like offering him a challenge in that respect, there wasn’t much fault one could find with his performance.
Central midfield deficiencies haven’t gone away
Of the goals scored by Arsenal, one was created directly from the left wing, one involved a ball from the right wing to the centre that a Bournemouth centre-back made a mistake on intercepting, and one was created because of excellent defensive work by Lacazette in the middle. The third goal highlighted why we had success with the 3-4-2-1 last season, with Sanchez playing a similar role in hassling opponents in their halves, and perhaps indicates that even without Sanchez, we may be able to utilise the formation effectively.
However, yet again there was a significant lack of play through the middle, with Ramsey continuing to take up positions upfield, often in wide positions, rather than in the centre of midfield. This helped create the first goal as he released Kolasinac down the left, but meant we once again failed to create chances in the middle. The second goal proved how useful playing through the middle can be, with Ozil’s pass creating panic for Ake, who miscontrolled and allowed Welbeck to feed Lacazette, who put the ball away superbly from just outside the box. Having a player in central midfield would have also contributed to Xhaka’s misplaced passes since he never really had a midfield partner to exchange passes with.
Luckily though, the defensive stability the defensive tweaks provided, along with the wretchedness of Bournemouth, meant we got away with it, but this is going to continue to be a problem for us this season, by the looks of it. It will be interesting to see if our performance today in the Europa League includes similar flaws and/or improvements, given that heavy squad rotation will be required.