We are almost a third of the way into the 2018/19 Premier League season, yet today Bournemouth face Arsenal in a 6th vs 5th clash. Manchester United’s underwhelming start to the campaign has allowed Eddie Howe’s free-scoring side to, at least temporarily, form part of England’s esteemed top-six. It speaks volumes of Bournemouth’s progression under Howe that victory, which would move the Cherries to within one point of the Gunners, can no longer be considered a hugely surprising outcome.
Three consecutive draws have stunted the Londoner’s three-month unbeaten run. They face Tottenham and Manchester United in their next two, so squandering further points on the south coast could see Arsenal drift out of the Champions League reckoning and into a scrap for 5th, 6th and 7th place.
With five of their next eight matches against sides from last year’s top-six, injuries to key players had threatened to trouble the Cherries squad before a challenging period. Fortunately, the likes of Joshua King and Asmir Begovic have successfully recovered from their injuries during the international break, though Adam Smith, who is fortunate that a worrying knee injury has proved less severe than first thought, would still be unavailable for around three months. Jefferson Lerma was also withdrawn with an injury against Newcastle but has since been passed fit and should feature in some capacity. Stanislas faces a late fitness test to determine his involvement.
Despite usual competence with the ball, the hosts are unlikely to have superiority of possession on Sunday. However, Bournemouth may be encouraged to imitate the Wolves system that nearly bested Arsenal two weeks ago. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side were starved of the ball yet managed more shots than the Gunners and led seven counter attacks. This is something which Howe would hope his team are better equipped to profit.
Bournemouth’s attacking combinations aren’t too dissimilar to Arsenal; their quartet of forwards possess almost all the attacking and creative responsibility. With fast transitions and two wide players drifting in-field from their wings to better position themselves on the counter, the Cherries have become very effective at exploiting an over-committed opponent. The pace of Wilson, Fraser, King and Stanislas means that passes are often aimed beyond opposing defenders rather than to feet. It allows the team to attack space in between opponent’s defensive line and midfield or space behind a full-back by playing the ball into the channels. David Brooks demonstrated this in Bournemouth’s last home game where he was able to receive the ball beyond Matic to good effect, and the home side may aim to expose Xhaka in the same way.
Bournemouth’s success have been assisted by Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson, who have had exceptional starts to the season. The pair encapsulates Howe’s high-tempo footballing model and have improved vastly since arriving at the club, with both scoring for their national sides during last week’s international break. They have gone through similar hot-streaks in the past, but this season it appears more sustained. Fraser has created more clear-cut chances than any other player so far with Wilson scoring six and assisting a further four. This weekend, their movement in-and-out of wide areas may able to expose space behind Arsenal’s bombarding full-backs.
Since their promotion, Howe’s side have tended to go through rough patches where goals are conceded too fluidly. Defeat by four goals at Burnley and at Newcastle two weeks ago are stand-alone examples of how their defence can underperform. The Bournemouth manager should be cautious that his willingness to prioritise attack, unlike so many of the other coaches in the division, comes with a defensive snag. Defensive compactness is vital to deflect Arsenal’s probing inter-play, ideally to the wings as Ake and Cook are more comfortable defending floated crosses. The Bournemouth full-backs, especially with Adam Smith absent, are unlikely to contribute regularly upfield, so composed possession from midfield pairing Cook and Lerma or Gosling should prevent the chance of attack assets, like Wilson, becoming isolated from the game.
Predicted lineup: Begovic, Francis, S. Cook, Ake, Daniels, L. Cook, Gosling, Brooks, Fraser, King, Wilson
Both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returned to full training on Thursday, after both missed matches for their international sides last week. Emery’s forward options are somewhat limited with Welbeck out for the remainder of the season. Elsewhere, Monreal has suffered a setback in his recovery from a thigh problem, ruling the Spaniard out for a further two weeks. With Lichtsteiner also doubtful, Sead Kolasinac could be in line to continue at left-back. Sokratis, now entirely fit, may also slot back into the centre of defence in place of Mustafi or Holding.
Arsenal seems less incisive when faced with a camped back-line than in previous years. But for a Mkhitaryan cross that somehow evaded everyone, Arsenal were unable to break through Wolves defence two weeks ago, despite controlling 72% of possession. Emery should ensure that this doesn’t become a recurring theme, as the Gunner’s attack was similarly lacklustre in home victories over Everton and Watford.
Creative players Ramsey and Mkhitaryan have failed to lock-down starting places, and chief lock-picker Ozil hasn’t been able to kick on from his 60-minute masterclass against Leicester a month ago. In fact, their last league victory against the Foxes was an example of how their offensive setup is better suited to facing opposition who show greater attacking ambition.
With Emery continuing to experiment in search of his preferred attacking combinations, Alex Iwobi may move back to his favoured inside-left position this weekend after he was ineffectual from the right against Wolves. The Nigerian provides better defensive cover from the left than Aubameyang, which could, instead, see Aubameyang partner Lacazette upfront, as it is difficult to see Arsenal’s leading scorer dropped to the bench. Aaron Ramsey could also return to the starting XI, the Welshman can frustrate with overly elaborate flicks, but his movement in between the lines makes him more of a threat than Mkhitaryan.
The Bournemouth defence are unlikely to sit as deep as Wolves but may drop-off when Arsenal have sustained spells of possession. The hosts tend to defend narrow to limit pockets of space in central positions. Their aim is to deflect Arsenal’s build-up sequences to less dangerous wide areas. However, this should present the opportunity for Bellerin and Kolasinac to provide support on either flank. Width provided by Arsenal’s advanced full-backs compensates for the lack of creative freedom given to Xhaka and Torreira but relies upon the central pairing to provide defensive cover when they over-commit.
Bernt Leno appears to have secured his place in the Arsenal goal. His shot-stopping has been impressive, though it’s his assured distribution that sets him apart from Petr Cech.
Predicted lineup: Leno, Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Kolasinac, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Iwobi, Aubameyang, Lacazette
Watch out for: The improved performances of Granit Xhaka has mostly gone under the radar so far. The Swiss is still capable of making naïve individual errors, but his pairing with Torreira has given him the confidence to influence games with his range of passing.
Prediction: Bournemouth 2 – 2 Arsenal
Bournemouth won’t show their visitors any respect having won last season’s home encounter with Arsenal. Fragility remains in the Arsenal defence, and Bournemouth would hope to profit from forcing a mistake, particularly with the movement of Fraser and Brooks in-between the lines. The visitors would be wise to dampen the home side’s energy in the opening stages by taking early control of the midfield. Once they have a foothold in the game, Arsenal’s attackers may be able to exploit gaps in a Bournemouth defence which struggles to defend for long periods.