Arsenal look to get back to the business of winning at Dean Court on Sunday when they face a Bournemouth side eager to prove they are worthy of their current top-six spot in the table.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Gunners (6-4-2) are unbeaten in their last 16 matches across all competitions after Unai Emery’s tenure began with losses to Manchester City and Chelsea. But with three successive draws and four in the last five contests overall, Emery is eager to hit the ground running after the international break as Arsenal seek a top-four finish to get back to the Champions League for the first time in three seasons.
“The Premier League is our priority, and our objective in terms of the table is to finish in the top four,” Emery said. “The club wants to return to Europe’s top club competition which is the Champions League, and we have two opportunities by which to do that – one is the Premier League, and the other is the Europa League, because obviously you qualify by winning that competition. Both are very difficult but we want to ensure we perform the best we can on both fronts.”
Emery was effusive in his praise of Sunday’s opponents, with Bournemouth (6-2-4) the best of three teams on 20 points directly below the Gunners as they lead both Watford and Manchester United on goal difference.
“I think they are a good team, a young coach but a very good coach with his small experience but very big experience,” he explained. “I know Bournemouth and they are a very prepared team with tactically good movement on the pitch and with a big intensity with each player and when they are playing there, we know it is very difficult.”
Arsenal are still somewhat beat up despite the international break. Emery is on his third left back, Said Kolasniac, as Nacho Monreal remains sidelined and Stephan Lichtsteiner is questionable with a hamstring injury. Danny Welbeck is a long-term absentee with an ankle injury, but right back Laurent Koscielny is moving closer to his first match action since last spring when he ruptured his Achilles in their second-leg Europa League semifinal tie versus Atletico Madrid.
Back on the pitch, Arsenal are looking to put together a complete opening 45 minutes in league play. In an odd statistical quirk, the Gunners have yet to hold a lead at the interval in Premier League action.
“We can speak here about the statistics a lot of time, for a long time. We are scoring a lot, it’s good? Yes, it’s perfect. 26 goals is a very big statistic for goals, but also, we have received 15 goals. It is not good. We are playing sometimes with a very good possession. It’s good, yes?
“But sometimes, we are playing with a very good possession, for example against Wolverhampton, but we didn’t win. We need more, but we need more in some things being different tactically, individually, in the spirit, in the mentality.”
The Cherries have another chance to stamp their legitimacy against a Big Six opponent, having come up short at Chelsea, and more recently against Manchester United at home. The latter defeat was particularly frustrating – Bournemouth nearly ran United off the pitch in the first 45 minutes only to concede twice in the second 45 and allowed the winner in stoppage time.
The hangover from that loss continued at St James’ Park before the international break as they were unable to overcome a pair of goals by Salomon Rondon in a 2-1 loss to a struggling Newcastle United. Jefferson Lerma pulled one back for Bournemouth, but it was not enough to prevent a second straight loss.
One reason for the mini-slump has been the absence of striker Joshua King, who has missed the last three matches with an ankle injury. The Norway international has four goals, but he is part of Eddie Howe’s full-strength 4-4-2 set-up and emerged as the perfect foil striker for the pacy Callum Wilson.
“He has improved. He trained with the group and we will be excited if he is fit,” Howe told the Bournemouth Echo about King and the team in general. “We’re a lot better than we had been after the Newcastle game where we had a number of players who had carried knocks and injuries.
“The break allowed us to nurse a couple to somewhere near full fitness. We will still make a few late checks going into the game but we are in a lot better shape.”
Wilson has a team-high seven goals in all competitions for Bournemouth, while Ryan Fraser has a Premier League-leading six assists and seven overall.
Howe will be forced into one change to his starting XI as Adam Smith suffered a knee injury against Newcastle and is expected to be sidelined at least three months. Charlie Daniels is expected to slot in at left back for the Cherries, and it should be a seamless transition considering he started 105 of Bournemouth’s 114 Premier League games the last three seasons and has been in the first XI four times this term.
After taking just one point in their first five Premier League matches versus Arsenal, Bournemouth finally broke through in the most recent meeting with a 2-1 win at home. Wilson scored an equaliser on 70 minutes to cancel out Hector Bellerin’s early second-half goal and then turned playmaker for Jordon Ibe’s match-winner in the 74th minute.
Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are even-money favourites to return to London with all three points, with Bournemouth getting 23/10 odds to pull off an upset and take sole possession of sixth. The longshot of the outcomes is the teams splitting the points at 11/4.
The Gunners are a 33/20 pick to win with more than 2.5 goals scored, while the host Cherries offer a 17/5 return to win with that goal count. A draw with less than 2.5 goals has 5/1 odds, while a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline is just off that at 11/2. A draw of 2-2 or higher has 7/1 odds, while little faith is offered for a Bournemouth victory and a 1-0 or 2-0 final at 9/1.
Arsenal strikers Alexander Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang lead the way for first-goal picks at 4/1 and 9/2. respectively. Wilson and Gunners reserve Eddie Nketiah are a joint third at 5/1, while the Cherries also have the next two in veteran Jermain Defoe (13/2) and King (7/1).
The Gunners duo are also the top two on the toteboard for scoring over the course of 90 minutes, with Lacazette at 6/5 and Aubameyang at 13/10. Wilson and Nketiah are again paired together, this time at 6/4, and Defoe gets some slight separation from his teammate at 15/8, with King and Henrikh Mkhitaryan at 21/10.
Bournemouth showed they were capable of taking on one of the Big Six for 45 minutes, the question now is can they sustain it for a full 90? What makes this match important for Bournemouth to at least take one point is Manchester United appear (key word: appear) to be experiencing something more than a brief malaise, which puts a top-six finish and a spot in Europe in play.
Getting King back for this match will be huge, especially against an Arsenal back line Emery is still piecing together match to match. Additionally, the Gunners’ bizarre first-half issues (struggles feels too strong a word considering they have trailed just twice after 45 minutes despite not leading in any of those 12 matches) are tailor-made for Howe’s team to try and put together a 45 minutes like they did against United when they bloodied their nose with that deserved goal.
Yet Bournemouth are still fragile defensively, and while Daniels has been there and done that as he replaces Smith, Arsenal’s right side with Alex Iwobi or Mkhitaryan will prove troublesome. Two of the Cherries’ three clean sheets in league play have come against the more challenged offensive sides in Cardiff City and Southampton. This is a match where Begovic must stand up and be counted.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Bournemouth 2, Arsenal 2.