Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil were instrumental as a sharper Arsenal side dispatched an abject Bournemouth 3-0 on Saturday at the Emirates.
Arsene Wenger selected 11 players in something resembling their best positions, and as a result, Arsenal turned in their most accomplished performance of the 2016/17 premier league season so far, in my opinion.
Detractors may tell you not to read too much into Arsenal’s accomplished performance given how dreadful Eddie Howe’s men were, but I feel you can contend that Bournemouth were so listless as a result of the job Arsenal did on them.
Before talking about Arsenal’s use of the ball, it’s important to address their work without it. They’ve really struggled without the ball so far this season, partly due to players playing in unfamiliar positions, I believe. In defence, when the opposition have been in possession, the spacings between Arsenal players have been way off. As has been the case with their trigger movements to go and press the ball, particularly against Liverpool at Anfield, which made Arsenal very easy to play through.
When their teammates were in possession, Arsenal players were often stationed too far from one another, which was prohibitive of the quick combination play that was a trademark of the Wenger teams of old. This was most evident against Leicester. Because of this, this season’s performances lacked rhythm and Arsenal were unable to assert dominance and forced to rely on ‘moments’ to fashion chances.
Ozil and Ramsey were key to a much more co-ordinated pressing performance against Bournemouth and stopped their visitors getting anything going playing out from the back, as Howe likes his charges to do. Ozil’s intuitive understanding of space made him crucial in assisting Danny Welbeck and Alexandre Lacazette in shutting down the first pass out of defence and forcing Bournemouth to go wide or pump it long.
Tactics are only as good as a team’s implementation of them and can be undone by the opponent being too good or too clever to outplay or out-think them. Howe had clearly instructed Josh King to drop off and attempt to shackle Granit Xhaka. He had no such luck and the Swiss midfielder was able to sit back and run the show from deep midfield. The spell between Arsenal’s first two goals was categorised by Xhaka and Ozil running amock and toying with their visitors.
Ramsey fared a lot better than King in disrupting his opposition’s midfield. The decision to instruct him to press high at Anfield hadn’t worked out at all as hoped, and he was singled out for criticism despite a number of his teammates being just as culpable in contributing to the collective shortcomings through not doing their own jobs properly, either.
However, with more teammates doing their own jobs properly against Bournemouth, Ramsey was free to do his thing and he excelled, contributing to an Arsenal performance that made them look greater than the sum of their parts for the first time in a long time at the Emirates.
Ramsey had great joy screening Bournemouth’s first pass out the back and prevented them from building through the middle. They posed zero central threat to an Arsenal midfield that had been easily bypassed for at least one goal in each of the three previous league games. Because Bournemouth couldn’t build from the back, they became demoralised and offered little threat on the counter when half an opportunity potentially opened up.
They didn’t have a shot on target until the death throes of the match, which tells it’s own story, considering they’re supposed to be a ‘footballing’ side going up against an Arsenal side who have looked porous without the ball this season.
While the Welshman’s runs beyond the ball were criticised at Stoke and Anfield because nothing else was working, they were key to Arsenal’s win on Saturday. His runs dictated that a Bournemouth player had to track him. With intelligent, ball-playing wing-backs playing in their natural positions on either flank, the visitors had to respect Arsenal’s passing options more.
With Ramsey making his runs into good advanced receiving positions, Ozil was allowed more time on the ball in deeper areas. He and Xhaka absolutely ran the game. It may have only been against Harry Arter and Dan Gosling, but you have to start somewhere. And they couldn’t do it against Matty James and Wilfred N’Didi of Leicester, nor against Liverpool’s limited workhorses Emre Can, Jordan Henderson, and Georgino Wijnaldum.
Ramsey was also impressive on the ball. He intelligently combined well with Kolasinac down the left, before the Bosnian crossed for Welbeck to head the opener beyond a hapless Asmir Begovic, then again slipped Welbeck in himself to make it 3-0 early on in the second half. He perhaps should have scored a goal to crown his performance in the latter stages of the game but was off balance at the crucial moment and wasn’t able to get the right connection on the ball.
Now that Arsenal are playing proper players in their preferred positions, they are at least giving themselves the best possible chance of beating whatever opposition they encounter. Wenger is no longer putting his team at an unnecessary disadvantage, as he did with his team selections against Leicester, Stoke, and Liverpoo, in my opinion.
I think we will likely see an experimental XI in Thursday’s encounter with Cologne and again next midweek against Doncaster, but hopefully the side selected for Sunday’s trip to Stamford Bridge will be as logical and conventional as fitness permits.