Arsenal managed to both play fairly well and make life unnecessarily difficult for themselves against a very competent Bournemouth side.
What was most encouraging was the resurgence in Arsenal’s play in possession after two underwhelming and disjointed displays against Manchester United and PSG. This can mainly be attributed to Granit Xhaka’s performance in midfield.
Given the array of options at his disposal in midfield and the relative calibre of the opposition, it was pleasing to see Wenger avoid taking unnecessary risks by not playing Aaron Ramsey for a third successive 90 minutes in eight days after just recovering from a muscle injury. With how Arsenal lined up against Bournemouth and looked to play, Mohamed Elneny proved a worthy replacement.
Elneny didn’t spend as much time in attacking positions as Francis Coquelin has done when he’s been tasked with playing as the second midfielder. He played closer to Xhaka, whose range of passing moreso than movement enabled Arsenal to manoeuvre the opposition defenders, break their lines, and link more effectively with the front four.
This was key, as Arsenal’s front four had looked distinctly cut off from the rest of the team in previous outings against PSG and Manchester United. A consistent supply line from midfield also enabled Mesut Özil to spend more time supporting Alexis Sanchez up front, rather than having to drift and play two positions at once, to both help initiate attacks and then get up the other end of the pitch to finish them.
Another change saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come in on the left for Alex Iwobi, who struggled in his last two outings against PSG and Spurs. This is par for the course for a young player. He’ll go away, apply himself in training, and come back stronger. With Ox being more of an orthodox wide player than Iwobi, Arsenal were always likely to look to play fast, direct football against Bournemouth. He started the first half brightly, but lost confidence after a couple of loose passes.
Having been substituted in Arsenal’s last two matches, Carl Jenkinson was dropped from the matchday squad altogether. Jenkinson was replaced in the starting XI by Mathieu Debuchy. This was a surprise, given that Debuchy’s Arsenal career appeared to be dead, with him not featuring in a competitive match for the club in over a year. While there is no real difference between Jenkinson and Debuchy’s defensive qualities, the Frenchman is more technically adept. This showed through his involvement in Arsenal’s increasingly fluent ball circulation until his hamstring gave way.
His replacement, Gabriel, remains a mystery to many. He’s arguably even weaker on the ball than Jenkinson.
The defence of Gabriel is that he’d be be a fine CB in a consistent defensive set-up, with the right personnel around him, where he can focus on getting the traditional aspects of defending right and someone else can build play. However, he notably struggled at these traditional aspects of defending when called upon last season at Upton Park, Old Trafford, and away against Bournemouth themselves.
After Gabriel was thrust into the action, admittedly in an unfamiliar RB position, Arsenal’s build-up play suffered. He looked shaky 1v1 in space against the pacy Junior Stanislas and completely lost Nathan Ake at the back post when Bournemouth played a free kick into the Arsenal box at 1-1. He grew into the game, but never really got involved in Arsenal’s build-up play due to his technical limitations.
Last season’s Arsenal team would have struggled immensely without being able to build play down the right, given that it also lacked the ability to build play through the middle of the pitch. For chunks of last season, Arsenal had no real link between Per Mertesacker and Özil. As a consequence, 2015/16’s passing game lacked fluency or cohesion.
On Sunday, however, Arsenal were able to play out from the back through Mustafi, get the ball to Xhaka, either directly or through playing a triangle with Elneny, and then feed Özil, Alexis, or either of the wide players.
It was one of Xhaka’s long passes that set Alexis and Walcott away on the break, where the Chilean appeared to be fouled by Nathan Ake on the edge of the box, only for referee Mike Jones to wave play on. This just goes to demonstrate how quickly and efficiently Arsenal can turn defence into attack with Xhaka in midfield, rather than some of the alternative options.
With all technical senior RBs unavailable through injury, Wenger would be wise to keep picking Xhaka in his midfield to aid Arsenal’s central build-up play, control of tempo, and ability to release runners on the counter with an accurate long pass. This skillset, along with his standout performance in the North London Derby, and Arsenal not playing a title contender they’d need to respect enough to ‘shut up shop’ against until the trip to the Etihad the weekend before Christmas, are a set of circumstances which give Wenger little excuse to omit his £35m summer signing from his next few starting XIs in the league.