After a week in which Arsene Wenger insisted there was “no reason to panic”, there were brief moments where his Arsenal side looked close to meltdown on Sunday. Yet what will please their manager more than anything from this victory over a spirited Bournemouth is that his players were tested, they were troubled, and yet they ended a bitty and scrappy affair in the ascendancy.
When Callum Wilson cancelled out Alexis Sanchez’s opener from the penalty spot after a contentious foul by Nacho Monreal, a fourth consecutive draw for the Gunners and more ground lost in the title race seemed a distinct possibility. Yet a second-half turn around, inspired by Sanchez, may now restore the momentum that Wenger had feared was lost.
Arsenal made seven changes from the draw with Paris Saint-Germain, the most eye-catching inclusion being that of Mathieu Debuchy, whose last appearance for the club came a year ago last Thursday. Olivier Giroud was still not entrusted with a first league start of the season, despite scoring his two goals in his last two games.
Eddie Howe’s outfit have often been likened to their hosts - stylistically at least - but Bournemouth spent the early exchanges proving they can do that most ‘un-Arsenal’ of things and play rough. Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were each brought crashing to the turf by reckless challenges from Steve Cook and Simon Francis respectively. Both defenders were booked.
If this early show of force was meant to frazzle Arsenal, it not only failed but backfired. Cook, the blood still rushing through his brain, soon misplaced a back pass into Sanchez’s path, playing the man he had felled earlier through on goal. Adam Federici, Bournemouth’s ‘keeper, could do nothing to stop the Chilean from applying a simple finish past him.
From there on, it was supposed to be so easy. A dominant display and a routine three points were expected. Even Debuchy began backheeled passes until he predictably departed injured after a quarter of an hour, replaced by Gabriel. Perhaps the out-of-practice full-back was holding it all together, because soon after he lef the field, it suddenly fell apart.
For the first time in the history of the Premier League, Arsenal conceded a penalty for the second consecutive home game. Monreal was the one penalised, after he found sufficient force in his wiry frame to knock Wilson down in the box. A ‘soft’ call, maybe, but undoubtedly a silly foul. Wilson, like Harry Kane here three weeks ago, converted and Bournemouth were level.
Few crowds can turn on their team with as much venom as the Emirates, but for the moment, the referee Mike Jones was taking up all their attention. Had they focused on their own players over the next fifteen minutes, they would have begun to notice that a team with title aspirations were being comfortably out-passed and out-played by one content with just staying in the division.
Bournemouth threatened to make this dominance count. Adam Smith, operating on Bournemouth’s right wing, should have scored but miscued a free header from a few yards out. His namesake and teammate Brad was denied by Petr Cech at the near post shortly after. Arsenal had wilted and only the invention of Sanchez, who struck the bar moments before the half-time whistle, looked like pulling them out of a rut.
The interval, however, allowed Wenger’s side to regroup and having now seen off Bournemouth’s best spell, they calmed their nerves and reasserted themselves. All bar one of the Cherries’ players were crowded in the box before the hosts went back in front but not one of them could stop Monreal from making amends for conceding the earlier penalty. The Spaniard’s sent a splendid first-time cross to the far post and Theo Walcott made no mistake when invited to head home.
Normal service resumed, but the game's needle remained. Sanchez, the game's stand-out player, could have easily received his marching orders for a late and dangerous tackle on Harry Arter, and there was another penalty call against Monreal, this time for handball.
This time, Jones waved appeals away and there was no Bournemouth comeback. Their final clear-cut chance was their best, but after receiving the ball from a flicked-on corner, substitute and former Arsenal youth player Benik Afobe could only shoot directly at Cech from a couple of yards out.
Then came the coup de grace. As stoppage time began, Arsenal countered through Giroud, who showed an athleticism that he is not usually credited for. After a couple of sharp passes with Ozil, he dashed for the byline, outpaced the jaded blue shirts around him and squared to Sanchez. The Chilean calmly tapped the ball home for his second of the day and secured the win that, at one point, had looked unlikely.
Arsenal: Cech; Debuchy (Gabriel 16), Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal; Xhaka, Elneny; Walcott (Giroud 75), Ozil, Ozlade-Chamberlain (Ramsey 76); Sanchez.
Subs not used: Ospina, Gibbs, Iwobi, Coquelin.
Bournemouth: Federici; Francis, Cook, Ake, B Smith; Arter, Gosling; A Smith (Moussett 81), King, Stanislas (Ibe 71); Wilson (Afobe 63).
Subs not used: Allsop, Pugh, Fraser, Mings.
Referee: M Jones (Cheshire)
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