I have to thank my colleagues at Shoot for allowing me the privilege of a Premier League press accreditation. Yesterday’s visit to the South Coast was the first time I have applied to attend a game as a reporter, so it is appropriate that my column is due today. The length of the column prohibits a blow by blow match report so I would sooner look at some key aspects of interest to emerge for Arsenal’s comfortable 2-0 victory over a gutsy Bournemouth.
The selection of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain surprised me, and I was not alone. Readers of this column will know I was a staunch advocate of him starting on the right earlier in the season but too often his performances have not justified the faith. Unlike many, I have not lost my belief in the player but more I was concerned that he had lost belief in himself. Critics will point to a lack of assist and goals from a player in such an advanced position, and it is hard to argue with the poor stats. However, what was of more concern to me this campaign has been his constant poor decision-making and mis-placed passes. Both result in Arsenal losing possession and often in the wrong areas of the pitch.
I was a convert earlier in the season to the role Ramsey was given on the right and saw the benefit to the team both in attack and when not in possession, as the Welshman tucked in and supported the central pairing. Yesterday it seemed that Wenger had given Ox different instructions and he played the role more like Ramsey. Usually he seems to be on the touchline and often cuts a forlorn figure there. It was good to see him coming in and involving himself in neat interplay with Ramsey and Ozil. A senior Arsenal official told me before the match in the press room that his manager believes in him passionately and thinks the issue is one of in-game concentration and that he needs matches. This, and a recent dip in form in the last two outings from Campbell, had given Chamberlain his chance and in the main I think he took it.
I think Ox’s positive display gives Wenger a good option for the big match next week against the league leaders. With another 25 minutes under his belt, Coquelin must be seriously hoping that he will come back into the starting line-up next Sunday. The fact that Elneny missed the chance to start against the Cherries rules him out of the reckoning I feel, so the manager has to decide his central partnership and who plays right. He could start the way he finished on Sunday with Flamini and Coquelin sitting and Ramsey on the right, and I am sure he was having a look at that possibility with the substitutions he made. The alternative is that he pairs Coquelin with Ramsey, which I am sure most Arsenal fans would like to see again and starts Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right. The latter’s improved display, crisper passing and the confidence of a well-taken goal must make Wenger more persuaded of that option.
The other key area for discussion resulting from yesterday’s victory was the decision to pair Gabriel with Koscielny for a third straight match, with only the first due to Mertesacker’s suspension. It is hard to tell if Wenger is punishing Per for his moment of madness against Chelsea, resting him or genuinely trying to see if the Gabriel/Koscielny partnership is the future. Whatever his motivation I am not sure he is will be any the wiser in his deliberations.
Gabriel has many of the attributes we must admire in a centre-back. He is tenacious, bold, aggressive in the air and in the challenge and he certainly knows how to clear a ball. The final ability is one I like and is an aspect I have been critical of with Mertesacker before. The German’s clearances, whether by head or boot, too often don’t get the required distance and pressure is invited back on the team. On the flip side though, Per’s possession and passing range is far superior to the Brazilian and we are a better team playing the ball out and building from the back when he is in our defence.
Given the above the decision on who plays with Koscielny against Leicester may be determined by who plays centrally in midfield, my guess is that Mertesacker will return and take the armband in what is such a crucial game for Arsenal’s Premier League title aspirations.
The final observation from my first outing as a match reporter is a very simple one and one that I have not made or even considered before. Simply this – Mesut Ozil was not just our best player against Bournemouth but he was our leader. Whether it was the absence of his compatriot wearing the armband I am not certain, but I am sure that he was the general marshalling his troops at Dean Court. He led by example, he ordered his colleagues forward in the press and on the break and he was still running tirelessly for his team when others were dropping around him. He encouraged and he cajoled for 93 minutes and I hope he enjoyed every minute of his song on repeat from our away support. He deserved it!
Arsenal have often been criticised for having a lack of true leader on the field – in Mesut today we had one.