First-class goals by Mesut Özil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, separated by just 90 seconds of the first half, proved enough for the Gunners to secure their first away league victory in almost two months and to position them for a push at leaders Leicester City when the two sides meet next weekend.
Here are three things we learned from the match.
Mesut Özil brings calm
Knowing they needed a win to keep pace with Leicester and recognizing they hadn’t delivered one since downing Newcastle on January 2, the Gunners were edgy at the start. Their passes seemed rushed, their touches were a bit off, and their one look at goal, via Alexis Sanchez, lacked quality.
Özil calmed everyone down.
His finish ended a passage of play that displayed several Arsenal players’ strengths. Aaron Ramsey, afforded time and space about 30 yards from the Bournemouth goal, looked to his right, then lobbed a pass toward the back post. There, both Alexis and Olivier Giroud attacked the ball, Giroud winning it and heading just outside the six-yard box.
Özil ran onto the ball and, as it bounced, clobbered it with his right foot into the roof of the net. An absolute no-doubter that gave Arsenal the comfort of an early lead.
In addition to that goal, Özil settled the play with his work on the ball throughout the match. He completed 52 of 56 passes (93 percent), according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app, including 22 of 25 in Arsenal’s attacking third. He also made 11 ball recoveries, tied for most on the team with Ramsey.
Perhaps Özil recognized the need for control and took fewer risks. That did affect his creative output a bit, as he created just two chances for teammates, a low number by his standards.
But his influence was critical and solidified his status as Arsenal’s most important player so far this season.
Aesthetics don’t matter at this point
Arsenal needed to earn points in the league table, not style points, from this match. That’s exactly what they did.
Conditions didn’t favor an eye-catching display anyway. Bournemouth were energetic hosts with experience knocking off top teams on the South Coast. The Dean Court pitch was choppy, and a strong wind swirled around the small ground. Late on, a squall blew in and worsened the elements.
These factors did have an effect. Arsenal’s defenders had trouble judging long balls, and iffy moments with the wind from Gabriel and Nacho Monreal led to threats on Petr Cech’s goal. The Czech keeper had an uncharacteristically bad day distributing the ball, as the wind caught several of his throws and goal kicks and took them out of play.
Arsenal played through these potential distractions and kept focus. When the defense lapsed, Cech was ready to make several crucial saves. In other instances, his teammates threw themselves in front of Bournemouth shots, making six blocks, or chasing down their opponents, as fullback Hector Bellerin did when Gabriel couldn’t deal with the long ball to Bournemouth’s Marc Pugh.
It was far from a scintillating display, but in context it was precisely the effort and execution required.
Arsenal’s center backs are still adjusting
Laurent Koscielny, captain on the day, and Gabriel, preferred again to Per Mertesacker, were strong in some respects and less so in others. They did the basic job of central defenders, keeping the opposition strikers quiet, very well. Former Gunner Benik Afobe, leading the Bournemouth line, did not get off a shot. Koscielny, in particular, ably marshaled Afobe and was well positioned to deal with other threats.
Where he and Gabriel struggled was in the effort to move Arsenal from defense into attack. It’s been observed in many places that Santi Cazorla’s absence in midfield has affected the Gunners’ transitions, and here without Mertesacker’s knack for a pass from the back, Arsenal again sputtered.
One passage of play in the first half showed the struggles clearly. Gabriel retrieved the ball and came under a bit of pressure from Bournemouth. He sought a way out via Mathieu Flamini in midfield, but Flamini just passed the ball right back to Gabriel. Gabriel then tried right back Hector Bellerin, who could do little more than find Flamini in the center of midfield again. Flamini went back to Gabriel, who had no choice but to lump it up field and out of play.
Sequences such as this have been all too common in recent weeks. There are signs that Arsenal are looking for other ways forward, such as from Monreal to Alexis, which was the team’s second highest passing combination on Sunday, or, thanks to Alexis’s return, more energetic efforts to win the ball closer to the opposition’s goal. Arsenal will need to explore these avenues as opponents continue their clear approach of putting pressure on the Gunners’ center backs and central midfielders.
Oxlade-Chamberlain showed a flash of genuine quality with his goal. It might not have been as eye-catching as Özil’s, but his strike was very difficult. His first touch of Ramsey’s pass got him away from the defender, but his angle on goal was narrowing quickly as he ran slightly away from goal. He released his shot at the last possible moment, created decent power, and placed it precisely.
This was evidence of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s athleticism, and we’re all hoping the confidence he gains from scoring his first league goal since September 2014 will enhance his contributions to Arsenal’s title challenge.