Post Match Review
Arsenal hit stride against Bournemouth with Spurs lying in wait
Arsenal are just two weeks removed from the low point of the season, Unai Emery’s first in charge at the North London club, but the difference in the mood around the club is palpable following their third consecutive victory in just the span of a week. The Gunners had their way with Eddie Howe’s injury riddled Bournemouth side, trouncing the visitors 5-1 in one of the most emphatic displays of attacking quality we have seen this season.
It was a match that Arsenal looked destined to win from the off, beginning with Mesut Ozil’s early goal and carrying right through to the end. Not even an unfortunate mishap that spoiled Bernd Leno’s attempt at a second consecutive clean sheet could spoil the buoyant mood at the Emirates Stadium, and the Gunners have maintained their bid on a place in the top four heading into an all-important weekend clash with Tottenham at Wembley Stadium.
Quick On The Draw
Of all of the perceived issues with this Arsenal team in the early days of Unai Emery’s reign as Head Coach, one of the most persistent and alarming was how poorly the team played in the first halves of matches. Even during the 22 match unbeaten run that stretched from the third league match of the season until mid-December, the Gunners failed to carry a lead into the second half. It wasn’t until that streak had snapped that Arsenal first lead at the half, nursing a 1-0 advantage over Burnley on 22 December.
In each of the last two matches however, we have witnessed a stark contrast to those early season woes, with Arsenal not only leading at the half in both matches (2-0 against Southampton and 2-1 on Wednesday against Bournemouth), but scoring their first goal before 10 minutes had even elapsed. This new urgency Arsenal have found in the first half can only spell positive things for Emery and the players.
While he was receiving a lot of credit for his aggressive halftime substitutions and clever adjustments that had seen Arsenal rescue points in the second half more than perhaps was deserved, Emery himself stressed the importance of starting matches with focus and intensity. Though it is still a relatively small sample size, it appears that this is an area where Emery is finding more success in the second half the season.
It’s not a chip shot. It’s not a side foot. It’s not even really a discernible skill that is performed by a variety of players. It is Mesut Ozil’s boink shot (as I shall label it from now on), and it is still giving goalkeepers absolute fits each time he pulls it out of the bag.
Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard some of the drama surrounding Ozil’s standing in this Arsenal team; his massive £350k per week wages that get called into question as he struggles through illness and bouts of poor form. Then you witness a performance like the one he dropped on a hapless Bournemouth side on Wednesday, and you remember why he earned that contract in the first place. Mesut Ozil is a unique talent. He is quiet and unassuming in an increasingly brash world of top flight football. He is an artist, using the pitch as his canvas while other players, many of whom are credited with a far superior work ethic to the mercurial German’s, can only look on in wonderment.
His flaws don’t suddenly disappear after performances like last night, but they have been dissected ad nauseum here and elsewhere already. Today should be about appreciating the singular performance last night that only Ozil can truly give.
It started with his 4’ goal, but that was far from his only contribution. He served up a sublime assist to Henrikh Mkhitaryan for the second Arsenal goal of the evening, and his movement was a constant thorn in Eddie Howe’s side as he watched his Cherries drawn out of position by Ozil’s crafty runs and dummies. Joining Mkhitaryan in a creative, free-flowing partnership behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the German played with a freedom and energy that hasn’t been seen often this season. While his 90 minute shift on Wednesday may suggest his exclusion from the starting XI in the all-important North London Derby on Saturday at Wembley Stadium, it is undeniable that his rediscovery of his best form of the season could not have come at a better time for the team, and he may just find himself firmly back in Unai Emery’s plans for the run up to the end of the season.
The Mkhitaryan United Thought They Were Getting
In Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s final season at Borussia Dortmund, he had the best season of his career to date, staring in Thomas Tuchel’s side in a free creative role in behind current Arsenal teammate Aubameyang. He finished that year with an astonishing 13 goals and 20 assists, eventually earning himself a move to Manchester United in the summer of 2016. Two up and down years later, he eventually found his way to Arsenal in exchange for Alexis Sanchez last January, reuniting with Aubameyang under a manager who had long admired his skillset in Arsene Wenger.
While he appeared to be very much in Unai Emery’s plans at the beginning of this season, his inconsistency returned, and he appeared to be losing his grip on a starting role before a broken bone in his foot forced him out of action for nearly two months. However, since returning to the lineup in early February, Mkhitaryan has only gotten better, culminating in two goals and three assists over the last two matches. Along with Ozil, Mkhitaryan has helped to remedy the creative woes that the Gunners have suffered from throughout much of the winter.
He showed up in a big way for the team on Wednesday, bagging a goal and two assists in the comfortable victory. Far from the type of player to ease off the throttle and pad his pass completion percentage, Mkhitaryan has provided a spark to this Arsenal attack with his direct running and always positive play. One would be hard pressed to find an instance of the Armenian choosing the safe option, preferring instead to play penetrating passes towards goal, sacrificing success rate for the chance at creating a scoring opportunity for one of his teammates.
Like Ozil, he is not immune to the occasional crisis of confidence, and he blows hot and cold as much as any player in the team, but he proved yet again against Bournemouth that the most threatening version of this Arsenal team is one with him in it.
Anything You Can Do…
Even in the darkest days of this season, when the Gunners found themselves slipping away from their objectives in the race for a Champions League place, the obvious chemistry and mutual respect between Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang never waned. Both strikers are capable of leading the line themselves and have experience doing just that throughout their careers. Playing in the same postition, and ostensibly vying for the same place in the starting XI, their relationship could easily have been a contentious one. However, both players have fed off of their friendship and maintained a positive attitude regardless of whether they play together or one is forced to the bench as Emery’s search for the optimal balance in the team continues.
When both are on form, that friendly competition spurs each on to greater heights, and we witnessed this on Wednesday night. Lacazette started the evening on the bench as Aubameyang lead the line and eventually found the back of the net in the second half before giving way to Denis Suarez with 20 minutes to run. Not to be outdone, Lacazette, who had replaced Mkhitaryan after an hour had elapsed, claimed a free kick on the edge of the Bournemouth box.
Perhaps inevitably, the Frenchman coolly slotted his effort home, curling an inch-perfect shot over the Bournemouth wall and past the outstretched gloves of the Cherries goalkeeper Artur Boruc. During his celebration, he even partook in his and Aubameyang’s signature handshake with Mesut Ozil, while his laughing strike partner waited on the touchline to offer his own congratulations.
Having carried the Arsenal attack throughout the season, it appears the duo are still operating at the peak of their powers, benefiting greatly from the improved creative play behind them. There have been rumours making the rounds that one could be sold in the summer to help fund moves for players at other positions to better balance the squad, but for now both remain vital to the Gunners’ chances at securing a top four place this season.
Peaking At The Right Time
Two weeks ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the vibe around Arsenal would be so positive heading into this weekend’s North London Derby, but as it stands, Emery’s men could find themselves just one point off of their rival’s pace for third place in the Premier League if they should come away with a fourth consecutive victory on Saturday. The recent dramatic improvement could not come at a better time for Arsenal, as they have validated their performances with emphatic victories to match.
Tottenham, however, will present a tough challenge to overcome at their temporary home across the city. Their 2-0 loss on Wednesday against Chelsea will only increase their determination to end the Gunners’ run of positive momentum heading into the home stretch of the season. Predictably, Harry Kane returned earlier than expected from an ankle injury that had sidelined him for much of the last month, and he will be available to play in Saturday.
Arsenal should expect to see Heung-Min Son at some point during the upcoming match, as his pace and finishing have caused nearly as many problems for this Arsenal team as his tactical diving in the penalty area. Falling from just five points off the league leading pace to a nine point gap over the last two matches, Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino will be doing everything in his power to ensure the slide stops against Arsenal.
For their part, the Gunners made six changes to the starting XI on Wednesday with an eye ahead to this weekend’s clash. With Arsenal having had success with both 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 this past week, Tottenham will be forced to prepare for both possibilities in the next two days before they take the Wembley pitch on Saturday. It will be a telling match for both clubs, with one looking to keep a surging Manchester United behind them in the table, while the other tries to cling tenuously to third place, staving off renewed derision at their propensity to “bottle it”.
With two details oriented managers and two squads that appear to be getting healthy again, the match should be a fascinating one. Expect whichever team manages to score first to assume control of the match, potentially riding it out to secure the eventual victory.