Good evening. Arsenal face south-coast opposition for the second time inside a week when we travel to Bournemouth tomorrow afternoon, looking to secure our first Premier League win in five fixtures.
With Leicester City’s dream season continuing unabated as they beat Manchester City 3-1 at Etihad stadium earlier today to remain clear at the top of the table, we’re now eight points behind the Foxes, so the pressure on us to get back to winning ways in the Premier League has obviously been amplified.
But beat Bournemouth tomorrow and we have an opportunity to close that gap to just two points as early as next weekend, when we host Claudio Ranieri’s league leaders on Valentine’s Day and attempt to take some of the romance out of their surreal success story so far this season, along with the three points.
Standing in our way first though are the Cherries, who themselves have exceeded most people’s pre-season expectations and currently sit relatively comfortably in 15th place in the standings, five points above the relegation zone and with a game in hand over the teams below them.
One of their most in-form players at the moment is striker Benik Afobe, who of course came through the Arsenal youth ranks having joined our academy at just six years of age, before we eventually let him leave for Wolverhampton Wanderers in a reported £2 million transfer in January last year.
I remember Arsene Wenger describing Afobe as a ‘deadly finisher’, or something along those lines when he was still an Arsenal player, and after struggling for goals in several loan spells earlier in his career, he managed 19 from 30 appearances in a temporary spell at then League One side MK Dons in the first half of last season, leading to his switch to Wolves, where he continued his prolific form a division higher scoring 23 times in 48 appearances.
So it was unsurprising to see him back at a Premier League club so soon and he’s already managed three goals from his first four top-flight games for his new side since arriving last month, to suggest he’s more than capable of finding the net consistently at the highest level of the English game.
Some have recently criticized Arsene, saying he boobed big-time in letting Afobe leave without giving him a chance in the Arsenal first-team but I think that’s harsh and probably stems from being a little under-informed, given Afobe’s progress at the club was severely hampered by injury.
Also, as has been shown countless times in the past, timing, in terms of competition for places, often plays a big role in whether a young player gets a prolonged first-team chance at Arsenal or has to leave in search of regular football elsewhere. That’s something Arsene touched on when discussing his former player at yesterday’s press conference, when he said:
He (Afobe) was very young, he had big competition in front of him with Robin van Persie, and players like that, so I gave him authorisation to go somewhere and play, which he did. You educate people to influence their lives and give them success, that is what we do. When they do not manage to play for us, if they do it somewhere else we are of course very happy for them. Benik has done extremely well, even beyond the expectations of many people and that’s great, that’s down to him and congratulations to him. I think the best way to stop (him) being dangerous is for us to have the ball and dominate the game and being aware that Benik is quick, strong and has good movement in the box. We are used to facing these kind of strikers in the Premier League because in every single club there are top-quality strikers. That’s the same with Bournemouth.
I must admit I haven’t seen Afobe play much other than the odd highlight clip so can’t really comment on his best attributes with too much authority, but his goalscoring record speaks for itself and we’ll obviously need to keep him on a tight leash given his form. Especially when you throw the ‘ex factor’ into the equation, which will no doubt spur him on to try that little bit harder against the club that let him leave.
As far as our line-up is concerned, I do wonder if Arsene might make a change or two seeing as we’ve failed to score in our last three league games. It may be a match to give Theo Walcott a return to the striker’s role for instance, with Olivier Giroud dropping to the bench. I mean, Theo’s clearly been out of form playing on the flanks in recent weeks but then Giroud’s hardly been banging them in for fun. A rest for the big Frenchman, and at the same time, a show of faith with a return to his favoured position for Walcott, could prove beneficial for both players in the long-run.
At the back I think we’ll see Per Mertesacker return at the expense of Gabriel to partner Laurent Koscielny after the German missed the FA Cup clash with Burnley through suspension and watched the Southampton game from the bench. Francis Coquelin starting alongside Aaron Ramsey in central midfield in place of Mathieu Flamini, is another very likely change in my opinion providing the former is now deemed completely match-fit.
The rest of the line-up should be largely unchanged from the Southampton game though, with Petr Cech in goal, our two Spanish fullbacks, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez all starting. But a bit like up front, I’ve a feeling Arsene might want to freshen up the right hand side of the attack, where we could see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come in for Joel Campbell for instance.
I wrote earlier this week that I don’t really like Ramsey in central midfield because of his unreliable distribution but given he’s hardly ever played in a two with Coquelin, the boss may want to give that combination a chance to prove it can work before trying something else, such as bringing in Mohamed Elneny or even handing Alex Iwobi a Premier League starting berth as a central midfielder.
By my recollection, Coquelin and Ramsey have only ever played as a partnership for 45 minutes this season – the first half of our opening-day defeat by West Ham – so even if many, myself included, aren’t convinced it can be effective, hopefully the doubters can be shown up as not knowing nearly as much as we think we do, and that duo will gel to form the midfield platform on which we go on to win things this season.
How I’d love to be proven wrong as Coquelin stealthily covers Ramsey’s goal-getting forward raids, Mesut picks up the Cazorla-less circulation slack and we function fluently as a team all the way to the Treble …
Whichever line-up Arsene opts for however, the objective is very simple: we need to win because a manageable gap could very quickly morph into an insurmountable one if we’re not careful.