Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Cech // Holding – Mustafi – Chambers (Ramsey, 74’) // Maitland-Niles – Xhaka – Wilshere – Bellerin // Welbeck – Iwobi (Walcott, 76’) // Lacazette
Bournemouth (3-4-2-1): Begovic // Ake – Cook – Francis // Daniels (Mousset, 63’) – Gosling – Cook – Smith // Fraser – Ibe (Pugh, 86’) // Wilson (Afobe, 91’)
Bournemouth Press, Arsenal Struggle
Eddie Howe set up his team in an organised 3-4-2-1 to aggressively press Arsenal’s early buildup. With a man-oriented pressing system, Wilson stepped forward to apply tight pressure to Mustafi while Fraser and Ibe matched the side backs to deny easy progression. Daniels and Smith came up to press Bellerin and Maitland-Niles, respectively, while Gosling and Cook tried to prevent central access by pinning themselves to their midfield counterparts. Arsenal’s back three looked frustrated at times and the absence of a possessional structure allowed Bournemouth to dictate their directional passing; Holding, in the first half, expressed anger at Bellerin for being too eager to push forward, leaving him to pass around two opposition defenders.
Arsenal was able to break the structure when Iwobi and Welbeck dropped deep in the half spaces. Their willingness to drop into the midfield to connect possession created a conundrum for sides that orient their action towards individuals. The attacker can switch positions or vary their movement to confuse the pressing team, and if the player is skilled enough can potentially create constant ball-side overloads. This happened frequently with Iwobi most effective, though his final end product was lackluster at times.
Iwobi and Welbeck’s half space movements also opened passing lanes to Bellerin on the flanks and gave Arsenal a vertical outlet to escape Bournemouth’s aggressive press. Daniels, in particular, was prone to stepping towards the inside forward and leaving Bellerin’s runs uncontained. Luckily for him, Ake is mobile enough to step wide and pressure Bellerin but the constancy in which Arsenal exploited the spaces on the right side meant he could not prevent all of Arsenal’s forward forays.
Despite the momentum and dominance of possession, Arsenal was unable to maintain any attacking fluency as their play became disjointed. With Ozil out of the first eleven, creative duties were left to Wilshere. While he was easily our best player on the day, displaying his usual ability to dribble out of trouble and push the attack forward, he became the sole focus of Bournemouth’s pressing in their middle block. With Arsenal struggling to enter into the centerbacks with any ease, Lacazette was unfortunately isolated. He tried to link with the midfield by dropping deep himself but it only created greater offensive problems for Arsenal as they lacked any release valve over the forward and midfield lines.
Bournemouth and Two Predictable Goals
For three months, with an increasing crescendo, I have lamented on one of Arsenal’s biggest defensive failings: lost second balls. Arsenal, as if wired to an ever-present doomsday clock, concede goals of such stupidity that it feels as if they are trolling fans. Jordon Ibe’s goal is not spectacular and is not bred of such spectacular beauty that we may have mistaken him for a world-class footballer. With the score 1-1 and Arsenal reeling, Xhaka had a mild hallucination that he was strolling the beaches of the South Coast instead of tracking the very noticeable run of Ibe in the center of the pitch. It can be Xhaka this week, Wilshere the next, or whoever decides that they want to take a turn being the midfield scapegoat. As long as Arsenal lack any defensive ideology that connects all the disparate pieces, this team will constantly struggle.
No doubt that during each season there are times where Arsenal can button down the hatches and nullify even the best of attacks, though it tends to come at a significant attacking cost (see Chelsea earlier this week). Even when Arsenal can muster a form of defensive organisation reminiscent of early Wenger, lurking below the surface is that gnawing realisation that a small jab can bring humpty-dumpty off the wall. Having young defenders on the side always creates a sense of chaos but giving youth a chance has always been one of Wenger’s best traits. What teenagers need more than most is the belief that if things go south, there is a team structure that they can fall back on. As each day passes, however, it is becoming harder to believe that Wenger is the manager to provide that.