FOR some Gooners, Christmas came early this year — Dec 20 to be precise — when former Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta (pic) was confirmed as the North London club’s new manager.
Then there was the clean sheet the Gunners kept against Everton last Saturday — the first time in 15 games.
So it’s no exaggeration to say that the Gunners arrived at Bournemouth for their Boxing Day match with more than a dash of hope. Maybe, maybe, we’ll get that new manager boost that has eluded them since Arsene Wenger left.
(Okay, to be fair, former Gunner boss Unai Emery did go 22 games unbeaten before things imploded.)
But 35 minutes into the game, Dan Gosling scored to put Bournemouth in the lead, and you just knew that no Christmas miracle was in store for Arsenal. After all, this has been Arsenal’s worst position in the EPL table at Christmas since 1983 — from the usual top six to six spots away from the relegation zone.
Luckily, Santa did not lose the Gooners’ present. Not fully...
Sure, Arsenal could only stage a draw-comeback with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s equaliser in the 70th minute, but there was enough in the match to show the Arteta effect had taken root.
With reportedly only three training sessions amid the typically hectic festive period, Arteta seemed to have managed to make a few tactical tweaks that showed some impact at Dean Court. Most noticeable perhaps was Arsenal’s quicker and more focused game.
We saw fewer sideways and backward passes with Arsenal playing with a more defined style and strategy at a much higher tempo in possession.
Of course they were not able to maintain the high level of play for the full 90 minutes but they at least enjoyed more control and created better chances. In fact, the match was very much Arsenal’s to lose and it was only the wastefulness of their forwards that saw them failing to grab all three points.
The match also showed how Arsenal could finally learn to master playing from the back. Sure, Bournemouth completely capitalised when Arsenal did it wrongly — but the players seemed to have a better understanding of what they were supposed to do under Arteta and actually created more chances that started from deep positions, after the ball was initiated up the pitch from the back. Again, it was only the attackers’ lack of sharpness that let Arsenal down.
Another interesting change in the Arteta project was the personnel shake-up, particularly in the middle of the park — Mesut Ozil was given a chance! — with Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira pairing up to build up play.
Arteta has hinted of his big plans for Xhaka, but the Bournemouth game revealed that the midfielder still needed work. Torreira, however, showed his potential again as the genuine game-dictating, play-breaking defensive midfielder that Arsenal have been missing for years.
Arteta has not solved all of Arsenal’s problems — their defenders are still rubbish! — but he showed that he has some answers to get the Gunners out of their rut. He will need all his wits against Chelsea tomorrow though.
The Chelsea game is a bigger challenge: not only because of the gap — Arsenal is trailing eight points and seven spots in the table behind the Blues — but also because Frank Lampard likes to mix it up.
Chelsea was in the same boat in their Boxing Day match — they hogged possession against Southa-mpton but created few clear-cut chances and were picked off by the Saints who beat them 0-2.
It is not clear which Chelsea will come to Emirates, but at least for Arteta, it doesn’t look like he would need to go back to the drawing board. He just needs to build on what he has started and get Arsenal back into their groove.
But still, Santa, as a belated Christmas present, can we get at least one new defender for the New Year?There is a “new hope” but not enough “force” has been awakened for Arsenal to rise, yet: Arsenal 1, Chelsea 2.
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