An Alexis Sanchez-inspired Arsenal saw off Bournemouth 3-1 on Sunday at Emirates Stadium to get back to winning ways after three consecutive draws throughout November.
In a match that was closer than the final score suggests, the Chilean always looked likely to be the difference. An ordinary player might have been tired after matches against Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain in the space of a week, but not Alexis.
After the match, Arsene Wenger told Arsenal.com of his goalscoring talisman: “Even when he looks dead, he’s still alive.” Thanks to his goals against Bournemouth, there is life in Arsenal’s title challenge yet.
After a gruelling Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain, Wenger made seven changes to his team. Despite the heavy rotation, Arsenal started the game relatively well.
The fact Bournemouth acquired two bookings in the opening 10 minutes of the game illustrates that, in the initial stages at least, the Gunners were hard to live with. It took a couple of excellent Bournemouth blocks to prevent Wenger’s men from taking the lead—one from Nathan Ake, to deny Mohamed Elneny, was particularly good.
Alexis Sanchez was on hand to score twice against Bournemouth.
It will have been frustrating then that Bournemouth effectively handed Arsenal the lead. A misplaced pass from Steve Cook left Alexis one-on-one with Adam Federici. With the goal at his mercy, he fired under the former Reading stopper and into the net.
At that point, Arsenal ought to have been in complete control. However, they were seemingly thrown by an injury to Mathieu Debuchy. The Frenchman was a surprise selection, making his first start for he club in over a year. With just one behind-closed-doors match under his belt, it was arguably a risk playing him from the start. Four minutes after the opening goal, Debuchy departed clutching his hamstring.
He had started brightly, and the blow was compounded by the fact Arsenal had not named a natural right-back on the bench.
Wenger chose to bring on Gabriel to play at full-back, despite the Brazilian’s limited experience in the role. Perhaps he would have been better served by naming Rob Holding among his substitutes—although primarily a centre-half, Holding spent much of last season filling in at right-back for Bolton Wanderers.
Another alternative would have been to deploy Francis Coquelin in defence. The holding midfielder has played in both full-back positions for Arsenal during his time with the club.
Mathieu Debuchy picked up yet another injury.
If he was determined to use Gabriel, he could have put him on at centre-half and instructed Shkodran Mustafi to switch to the right. Mustafi has played at full-back for Germany on several occasions but never disgraced himself.
I imagined that something can happen to [Debuchy]. I had Coquelin who was ready to play right-back as well. But I have gone for Gabriel, because he is more a defender and he’s very quick.
As it was, Gabriel tried manfully, but his lack of ability on the ball disrupted Arsenal’s attacking game.
Then came the equaliser. Nacho Monreal got away with putting his hands across the opposition during the match at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, but was not so fortunate against Bournemouth. A spot-kick was awarded, and Callum Wilson coolly dispatched it.
Once Bournemouth were back on level terms, they grew throughout the first half. Eddie Howe’s insistence on playing a passing game may have contributed to Arsenal’s opener, but the benefits of that attractive approach became evident as the game wore on. Even without loanee Jack Wilshere, Bournemouth’s intricate midfield play was a delight to behold.
Arsenal, for their part, looked flustered. There were occasional flashes of excellence, mostly via Alexis—the Chilean fired a fizzing shot against the crossbar and worked another opportunity that he thundered just over. Even when Arsenal were underperforming as a team, he provided a consistent threat.
Nevertheless, the impossible conclusion was that Arsenal had lost control of the game. The fans’ frustration with the referee was matched by their irritation at the dwindling performance of their own team.
Fortunately, the second half was more to the crowd’s liking. Arsenal edged ahead shortly after the break—when Mesut Ozil’s deflected cross reached Nacho Monreal on the left-hand side of the penalty area, he might have been tempted to thrash a volley towards goal.
Instead, he showed Ozil-esque composure to neatly volley a cross back to Theo Walcott, who marked the birth of his second child with the second headed goal of his career.
Undeterred, Bournemouth continued to threaten. Former Arsenal striker Benik Afobe came off the bench and saw his close-range effort brilliantly denied by Petr Cech. Had the veteran keeper’s reactions been any slower, this could have been a very different afternoon for Arsenal.
However, it was Alexis who had the final say. In the dying moments, an Arsenal breakaway saw substitute Olivier Giroud square for Alexis to tap home his 10th goal of the season. Arsenal’s long search for a prolific centre-forward has ultimately seen them turn successfully to a player who already resided in their squad.
Alexis Sanchez has been a revelation as a centre-forward this season.
Afterwards, Wenger was moved to praise the former Barcelona man. Speaking to The Evening Standard, the Gunners boss also mentioned the significance of his forthcoming contract talks:
He has that condition that when the ball comes to him again he always finds that extra gear to be dangerous.
It is important [to keep him] how important I don’t know. We will not do that [agree a new contract] tonight and we have some time in front of us.
November was billed as a make-or-break month for Arsenal. However, they have extended their unbeaten run despite a daunting fixture list. This is now the first time the Gunners have avoided defeat in a Premier League November since 2011—and it’s only the second time they’ve managed the feat in the last nine seasons.
That will fuel the belief that Arsenal could end 2016/17 in triumph. If they are to do that, Alexis will surely be instrumental. Arsenal’s fantastic forward is a natural winner, and right now he looks capable of leading his team-mates to success.