Arsenal being Arsenal we should have all probably seen this coming. After Thursday’s comfortable and smooth thrashing of Standard Liège came this edgy and narrow win over Bournemouth. Most of the first-team players returned and the hosts reverted somewhat to type – getting the job done but in a manner that filled this venue with anxiety and continues to cloud Unai Emery’s credibility as manager with uncertainty.
The men in red and white were holding on by the end, pushed back by opponents who smelt blood having stepped up their intensity after a sluggish first-half showing. There was muttering in the stands and a sense that Bournemouth could, and would, snatch an equaliser that on balance they arguably deserved. Joshua King came close on 90 minutes but ultimately Arsenal secured a victory that moves them to third place.
Their winner arrived early and from an unlikely source. David Luiz scored his first goal from Arsenal since arriving from Chelsea in the summer with a glancing header from Nicolas Pépé’s inswinging corner and, at that stage, it appeared that Arsenal were set to secure another big win following their 5-0 Europa League triumph. But, as has been the case often under Emery, they lost their verve and lost their way. For Bournemouth, this was a first league defeat in four games and one their manager, Eddie Howe, will look back on with some regret.
Emery made 10 changes from the Arsenal team that beat Standard Liège and yet again there was not a place, even on the bench, for Mesut Özil. Presumably, to use Emery’s own words, other players were chosen over the German because they “deserved it more” and those that started certainly made a quick impression, starting brightly and, on nine minutes, taking the lead.
It was a simple finish by David Luiz resulting from poor defending on Bournemouth’s part, especially by Callum Wilson who simply let the defender run past him and into space. Aaron Ramsdale probably should also have done better given the ball bounced before drifting past the goalkeeper’s reach.
Bournemouth, who arrived here undefeated in their last three league games, looked rattled. In part that was because of the way Arsenal were pressing them from the front, with no one putting more of a shift in than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The forward set the tone and on 11 minutes chased Ramsdale across his own area forcing him to kick the ball away for a throw-in.
The visitors eventually made an impact and could well have snatched an undeserved equaliser on 17 minutes had Dominic Solanke’s close-range header from Diego Rico’s left-sided free-kick been more accurate. Howe’s side also looked to get back into the game by showing more aggression in midfield, no one more so than Philip Billing, who on two occasions inside six minutes clattered into Mattéo Guendouzi, with the first leading to a booking for the 23-year-old .
Shortly afterwards, Arsenal felt they should have had a penalty following Pépé’s tumble in the area after a challenge from Rico. The referee, Martin Atkinson, thought otherwise and was backed up by a VAR check that showed the Bournemouth left-back had touched the ball first.
At half-time there was a definite sense of Arsenal playing within themselves, resting on a slim but relatively comfortable lead given the passive display of their opponents (Bournemouth ended the first half without a shot on target). Intrigue lay in whether or not they would come out after the interval intent on quickly doubling their advantage and, while the hosts started the second period well, they soon found themselves on the back foot.
Bournemouth were now playing with more aggression and purpose and in the twice in the space of two minutes, Callum Wilson came close to equalising. The first resulted from an exchange of passes with Solanke and a driving run into the area that the striker could not quite finish off and then, on 53 minutes, he just failed to reach the ball after David Luiz did not clear a deep cross from the left.
Anxiety suddenly spread across this stadium, and justifiably so. It was Arsenal who now look rattled, unable to handle Bournemouth’s changed approach resulting, in part, from a tactical shift that saw the two wide men, Harry Wilson and King, playing more centrally and the two full-backs, Jack Tracey and Rico, providing the width with deeper runs into the hosts’ area. Billing was also proving to be an increasing influence presence from central midfield.
Emery had no choice but to change things and did so on 62 minutes by replacing Pépé with Gabriel Martinelli, the 18-year-old striker who scored twice in the victory over Liège. His first, and most notable contribution, was being booked for a foul on Harry Wilson.