Arsenal are regularly criticised for an apparent weak mentality so deserve praise for battling their way to a win at Bournemouth, writes Mark Holmes.
After four games without a win in the Premier League, Arsene Wenger will view three points at Bournemouth as a success – regardless of his assessment of Arsenal’s performance at Dean Court.
The Gunners have progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup in recent weeks, while draws at Liverpool and Stoke City were pleasing in some aspects, but a defeat at Chelsea and then home draw against Southampton last time out left confidence “not as high as it should be” going into Sunday’s game, according to Wenger.
If every setback the Gunners suffer is a sign of their apparent weak mentality, then surely they deserve praise for toughing it out on the south coast to get back to winning ways?
That isn’t the way it works, of course. When certain teams win despite playing badly, it is said to be a sign of champions. But when Arsenal do it there is never a shortage of people to explain it’s why they won’t win the league.
The reality, however, is that the Gunners’ much-discussed title drought has a lot more to do with a lack of quality, in particular outside of their first-choice XI, than it has the lack of any required mental attributes. To claim they have been held back by a weak mentality is simply a well-worn cliche.
Little to get excited about performance-wise
What, then, to make of their performance at Bournemouth because, make no mistake about it, they did not play well.
Fortunate not to go a man down after a two-footed Mathieu Flamini lunge on Dan Gosling early on, there was certainly little to suggest two goals in the space of two minutes were about to come for the north Londoners.
Neither goal, however, was as a result of any great build-up play. The first came from Olivier Giroud knocking down a high diagonal ball for Mesut Ozil to calmly score, while the second, a fine finish from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, was helped in no small part by a Steve Cook mistake.
The rest of the half belonged to Bournemouth. First Petr Cech made a good save to tip over a Harry Arter shot, and then both Marc Pugh and Adam Smith were let down by poor touches in the penalty area when better control would have set up wonderful shooting opportunities.
Hector Bellerin did well to get back and block Pugh on the first occasion, but the ease at which the Cherries created their chances will surely have concerned Wenger. Nacho Monreal’s defending in particular, when ball watching and allowing Smith to take a diagonal onto his chest, left a lot to be desired.
Smith squandered another good chance seven minutes into the second half, but Arsenal to their credit succeeded in shutting out the hosts after that, with Alexis Sanchez twice almost the architect of third goals, first curling an effort at Artur Boruc before beating Smith in the box and pulling a cut back just behind Ozil and Olivier Giroud.
Coquelin return key for Arsenal
Though Bournemouth piled on the pressure in the closing stages, the introduction of Francis Coquelin in the 69th minute certainly helped shore up the visitors in the middle of the pitch. And his recent absence and subsequent return is probably the most pertinent point to explain Arsenal’s stuttering form over the past six weeks. Wenger has increased his spending in recent seasons, but still there is a lack of quality cover in certain positions.
Too often, sweeping judgements are made on the back of teams’ one-off performances, often in the absence of crucial players. Just as Manchester City look a lesser side without Vincent Kompany or Sergio Aguero, so too do Arsenal when you take out one of their key men. As I wrote last month, the destination of the title this season can often be decided simply by which of the contenders suffer the least injuries.
But with Coquelin and Sanchez closing on full fitness and a full week to prepare for next Sunday’s game against Leicester City, there will be few excuses for the Gunners not to produce the vastly improved performance they will need to rein in the Foxes at Emirates Stadium.