Giroud scored in the second minute of stoppage time to salvage a 3-3 draw with Bournemouth on Tuesday as the Gunners slipped to fifth place in the Premier League. Pundits said before the game that Arsenal needed to win at the Vitality stadium to stay in the title race, but I already had my doubts when the Gunners couldn’t beat Middlesbrough in October. Their inability to get a point against Everton and Manchester City last month made me more skeptical. Actually, it’s quite foolish to think about the title now that the Red Devils are just two points behind Arsenal in the standings. The league has become so competitive this season that finishing with 80 points may not even guarantee a Champions League spot.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The Gunners trailed 3-0 on Tuesday because of some unbelievable naivety at the top level. Daniels cut inside Bellerin in the 16th minute to beat Cech from close range. Instead of diving in, Bellerin should have closed the inside door and forced Daniels to take his chance from a tight angle. Four minutes later, Xhaka gave away a penalty by shoving Fraser from behind. That was a silly foul because Fraser was running toward the corner flag while Bellerin was covering Xhaka. Wilson converted the spot kick by firing down the middle to double the lead.
The game turned into a nightmare for Bellerin in the 58th when Fraser bullied the Spaniard to win the ball and slip it through Cech’s legs for a 3-0 lead. Bellerin tried to be too cute on that play. As the last defender, he should have simply cleared the ball into touch. There was also a moment when Xhaka failed to smell the danger. In the 12th, Xhaka gave too much space to Stanislas, who slipped a through ball to Wilson. Cech quickly came off his line to knock the ball away. If you are reluctant to close down an opponent, at least you have to cut the passing channel and Xhaka didn’t.
Xhaka’s bad instincts
To a certain extent, I am not surprised that Xhaka and Bellerin made those mistakes. Only Iwobi was younger than those two players in Arsenal’s starting lineup. I still think that Bellerin is a world-class player but he really had a poor game by his own standards. Bellerin had clearly not recovered from Sunday’s game as he won none of the 3 tackles he made. The Spaniard was even booked in the 31st for a late challenge on Fraser.
Throughout his career, Xhaka has often struggled to control his temper. The Switzerland international has tried to curb his instincts since his red card against Swansea, but he was let down by some poor self-control in the play that led to Bournemouth’s penalty. Wenger will need to have a word with Xhaka. That’s not a new situation for the manager since his former captain, Vieira, still shares the Premier League record for the most red cards received by a player (8).
It was a complicated game for Xhaka, who had to play in a more defensive role after Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced an injured Coquelin in the 28th. Xhaka only produced 71 passes, which is not much for a deep-lying playmaker, but he made a significant defensive contribution by winning 3 of 5 tackles and 2 of 2 aerial duels. He wasted a couple of set pieces in the first half with a poor delivery that failed to beat the first man. That’s when you realize that you really miss Ozil’s quality delivery, especially with a Giroud so dominant in the air. Somehow, Xhaka made amends in the second half by creating Arsenal’s second goal and making the assist for the equalizer.
A Frenchie’s revolt
We can give some credit to the Gunners for not giving up despite a three-goal deficit. As an example of their resilience, they won more tackles than Bournemouth: 13 of 35 tackles for Arsenal compared to 8 of 25 tackles for the Cherries, according to Squawka.
Giroud proved the key player in leading the revolt by making two assists and netting the equalizer. He held off Cook in the 70th to redirect a cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain toward the far post where Sanchez headed home. Five minutes later, Giroud flicked a pass from Xhaka toward Perez, who volleyed into the far corner to make it 3-2. In stoppage time, Giroud outjumped Cook to head Xhaka’s cross into the bottom corner.
The Frenchman’s work-rate was quite impressive. He made 4 tackles and won 5 of 10 headers. Giroud even killed a Bournemouth counterattack with a sliding challenge on King in the 52nd. There was a minor injury scare as King stamped on Giroud’s ankle on that play. Giroud also played in the position of a centerback in the 82nd when Paulista was pulled out of position. Gosling managed to roll away from Giroud but sent his curling shot wide with just Cech to beat. Down 4-2, it would have been game over for the Gunners.
In stoppage time, Cech parried an angled shot from Arter to salvage a point. I thought Cech made some decent saves but nothing outstanding. I can’t help wondering whether De Gea or Courtois would have stopped Fraser’s goal from a tight angle. Cech was lucky to get away with a poor punch in the 56th. The ball fell to Arter, whose long-range strike deflected off Wilson’s hand to go into the net. The goal was disallowed for a handball but quite honestly it was similar to Koscielny’s goal against Burnley.
Lack of rotation
In the end, the draw was a fair result. The Cherries dominated the first half while Arsenal dominated the second half. Bournemouth played at a high tempo in the first half and the Gunners simply couldn’t cope with the intensity because of a lack of freshness. The energy levels of the Cherries dropped after the break while Arsenal somehow caught a second wind in the last 30 minutes.
At kickoff, I felt Wenger didn’t rotate enough. The manager only made 3 changes to the side that defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday with Mustafi, Coquelin and Ramsey replacing Paulista, Elneny and Perez in the starting lineup. Wenger is right to complain about the schedule. But then, he has to understand the implications and adapt. Bellerin, Koscielny and Iwobi clearly looked jaded. In hindsight, Holding, Paulista and Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been better starting options.
Koscielny had a decent game, making 2 interceptions and winning 2 of 2 tackles and 3 of 5 headers, until a bout of cramping led to his replacement by Paulista in the 64th. You can bet the manager would have been crucified if it had been a serious injury. In his return from a hamstring injury, Mustafi proved hyperactive with 8 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 blocks. He made a crucial sliding tackle in the 34th when Wilson made a run in behind the defense. However, his decision to set the offside trap in the 82nd was quite dodgy.
Ramsey in search of form and consistency
The situation in midfield is becoming a concern after Coquelin picked up a hamstring injury. Cazorla won’t return before March, Elneny is with the Egypt squad for the African Cup of Nations, and Ozil is still recovering from illness. That means we only have two established midfielders available: Xhaka and Ramsey.
Coquelin’s injury was unexpected since he didn’t even start against Palace and had therefore enough rest. The manager sent on the Ox for Coquelin in the 28th, as Xhaka teamed up with Ramsey in midfield. Ramsey is still struggling to get back on top of his game. His season has been marred by injuries so far.
In midfield, Ramsey will have to find the right balance between defense and attack. He let his team down by not marking Daniels in the 16th. Bellerin took the blame for the opening goal, but if you look at the screen capture below, you can see that the Spaniard was busy tracking Fraser. In fact, each Arsenal defender was marking one player before Stanislas made a cross-field pass to Daniels. That means Ramsey had to show more defensive awareness and cover the space created by Fraser’s movement.
Ramsey does not pay attention to Daniels, who has plenty of space to run into (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Ramsey still lacks a bit of sharpness as none of his 4 goal attempts was on target. The Wales midfielder controlled a cross from Sanchez in the 29th for an effort that Ake deflected out. He then connected with another cross from Sanchez in the 86th for a volley that sailed wide. On the bright side, Ramsey had 3 successful dribbles out of 4 and made 79 passes, more than any other player. His passing accuracy also reached 93.7%, the highest percentage for any player according to whoscored.com.
Season on the line at Swansea
The Cherries were down to 10 men after Francis made a two-footed challenge on Ramsey in the 82nd. However, Arsenal had gathered plenty of momentum by then. The turning point was arguably the shift to a 4-4-2 formation with Perez replacing Iwobi in the 63rd. Perez netted his first Premier League goal and could push Walcott out of the starting lineup if he keeps scoring and showing great work-rate. The Ox also made a good cameo appearance with 3 key passes and 3 accurate crosses, the most for any player. He also won 2 of 3 tackles and made 1 interception and 1 block.
The next league game against Swansea on Jan. 14 has suddenly become massive because of the two points dropped at Bournemouth. Our season could slip away if we can’t beat Swansea, Burnley and Watford this month. There’s enough quality in the squad to rest key players on Saturday when the Gunners face lower-league Preston in the FA Cup. We simply have too many players injured (Cazorla, Coquelin, Gibbs, Walcott) or still recovering (Ozil, Mertesacker, Welbeck) right now to make another silly gamble.