Has a 17 game unbeaten run, stretching back over three months, ever looked quite as wobbly as this?
After three consecutive Premier League draws, Arsenal finally returned to winning ways at the Vitality Stadium against Bournemouth, snatching all three points through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in another thrilling game they did not always look to be in control of.
Question marks remain. Arsenal are yet to lead a Premier League match at half-time this season. Unai Emery’s bold decision to play a three-man defence ultimately succeeded, but hardly shored his team up at the back. And Arsenal only took the lead in the first place through an incredible volleyed own-goal by Jefferson Lerma, so fundamentally ridiculous it could yet single-handedly revive the lost tradition of the football blooper DVD.
The width of a post then denied Lerma from atoning for his earlier misfortune by scoring a last-gasp equaliser. Josh King, who hit Bournemouth’s equaliser mere seconds before the half-time whistle, also went close with a late free-kick, although Arsenal held out and in turn closed the gap on the top four. Chelsea sit just a solitary point ahead. Beat Spurs in the north London derby next weekend, and Arsenal could even go third.
What Arsenal supporter, at the start of the season, wouldn’t have taken that?
Emery’s decision to play a back three for just the second time this season hardly solved all of Arsenal’s defensive problems, but the fact that both of their goals originated down the left through the impressive Sead Kolasinac went some way to vindicating his decision, as well as justifying the always eye-catching exclusion of Mesut Ozil.
Emery was happy with his experimentation. “We played like that in pre-season and also against Qarabag, and we are still finding our best performance and combinations,” he explained afterwards. “The way that Kolasinac and [Alex] Iwobi connected was very interesting. We attacked well and it gave us another possibility, and the most important thing is it gave us good balance.”
It is to Emery’s credit that, this time, he persevered with the system. Arsenal’s sluggish performance in the first-half in Qarabag so frustrated him that he reverted back to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 at half-time. Here, his side grew into the game after weathering Bournemouth’s early storm.
The home side even had the ball in the back of the net within seven minutes. Exciting young talent David Brooks swapped passes with King before casually rolling the ball past Bernd Leno, but his celebrations were cut short by Ian Hussin’s offside flag. Numerous replays from just about every angle seemed to indicate the decision was an unfair one. Eddie Howe wasn’t impressed.
Things were then to get even worse for Bournemouth when Lerma had the misfortune to score one of the most bizarre own goals in memory.
Naturally, it was Torreira who won the ball, pouncing on a loose pass with the menace of a trapdoor spider before releasing Iwobi who immediately shuffled it out wide to Kolasinac on the overlap. His cross was a poor one, only for a slipping Lerma to smash his right boot through the ball, which flew past a rooted Nathan Ake and Asmir Begovic before they even had time to turn their heads.
If only it had happened 80 yards down the other end of the field, it would have been a goal-of-the-season contender. “We started the game brightly and had some very good moments but Arsenal came back into it,” Howe later bemoaned.
“The first goal was bizarre and I don’t think you will see something like that again. It was one of those games. He was inches away from being a hero at the end and that is football for you.”
But Bournemouth quickly hit back to preserve Arsenal’s impressively awful first-half record this season: Cardiff are the only other club not to have led at the interval in a Premier League match this season. As Arsenal pushed for a second they were hit by the counter-attack, with Callum Wilson taking advantage of their scrambled defence to feed Brooks, whose sumptuously weighted pass was well dispatched by King.
Unlike in Azerbaijan, Emery did not blink and Arsenal slowly began to gain a grip on the game in the second-half. Torreira again went close with yet another low, dipping long-range effort — this time deflected behind — and Aubameyang spurned a fine chance when he blazed over from just inside the box.
A few moments later and he made up for it. Iwobi ignored the easy pass and instead released Kolasinac storming into space down the left. His fizzed ball into the box proved far too hot to handle and there was Aubameyang, sliding ahead of Begovic to win the game.
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