BOURNEMOUTH, England — Three thoughts from Bournemouth 3-3 Arsenal at the Vitality Stadium on Tuesday.
1. Lucky escape for Arsenal
In the end, Arsenal’s supporters left the south coast with something special: the sudden and unexpected creation of one of those golden memories that outlives the bad ones, the type that keeps the fans travelling miles from home on cold nights to follow their team, that keeps them in their seats even when the cause looks lost. From three goals down, and with Bournemouth supporters gleefully chanting for a fourth, the Gunners fought back to salvage a draw and spare venerable manager Arsene Wenger what would have been a brutal cross-examination. But deep down, even the happiest Arsenal fan will know that this was a fortunate escape.
Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, having seen his team tear the Gunners apart, could only watch in horror as Arsenal fought back for a draw. Howe’s team was compromised first by injury to the effervescent Ryan Fraser and then by the harsh dismissal of Simon Francis. Emboldened after what had been a wretched night, Arsenal pushed and pushed to claim their point. No one could have seen it coming with 20 minutes left to play.
Everything from the seventh minute until that point had been an unmitigated disaster for Arsenal, a performance landslide, the first tumbling pebbles of which could be seen when Francis and Junior Stanislas found the time and space to exchange a series of sharp passes and back-heels on the left side of Arsenal keeper Petr Cech’s box. Arsenal’s response was sluggish and complacent; Alexis Sanchez, still out on the left in support of Olivier Giroud, tried to open up the Bournemouth defence, but wires were crossed and possession was wasted. Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka drove a corner straight into the first man. It was slack and it was punished.
Bournemouth might have won a penalty after 16 minutes when Cech wiped out Callum Wilson, but referee Michael Oliver decided that the ball had been won fairly. The home fans begged to disagree. They were not upset for long; four minutes later, there was no question of the legitimacy of their goal. Stanislas, in the form of his life this winter, found Charlie Daniels wide open on the far side of the pitch with a magnificent cross-field ball. Daniels, with far more space than he could have expected, drove the ball into the back of the net.
Four minutes later, it was even worse for Arsenal. Xhaka shoved Fraser down in the box, a needless challenge that was asking to be punished, especially by a referee who had already denied the home side one penalty. Wilson made no mistake.
Arsenal’s problems multiplied. The landslide took hold. Pebbles became rocks, rocks became boulders. Francis Coquelin, in for the African Nations Cup-bound Mohamed Elneny, crumpled to the ground clutching his hamstring. Wenger was forced to reshuffle, moving Aaron Ramsey into midfield, Alex Iwobi behind the striker and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out wide. But Arsenal were rattled. Even more passes went astray. Players began to shout at each other in frustration. And still the Bournemouth chances came. Wenger was fortunate to get to half-time with only a two-goal deficit.
There was more intensity in the second half, surely the result of a full and frank exchange of views in the dressing room at the break, though Bournemouth had their hearts fluttering when Harry Arter’s shot smashed into Wilson’s arms and into the back of the net. Referee Oliver ruled it out. Again, Bournemouth were not angry for long. Moments later, Fraser, the smallest man on the pitch, outmuscled Hector Bellerin, cut inside and poked the ball through Cech’s legs. Arsenal looked finished.
Howe took no chance; he shifted to five in the middle by putting Andrew Surman on for Josh King. But Sanchez struck back in the 70th minute, stretching to reach Giroud’s flicked header after a good cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain. Five minutes later, Arsenal had two, a fearsome volley from Lucas Perez, who chose a very good time to open his Premier League account.
And then came the red card with echoes of Mike Dean’s decision to dismiss Sofiane Feghouli on New Year’s Day. Francis was furious; there was a scuffle as he left the pitch. But the damage was done. Giroud equalised in the second minute of injury time.
2. Heartbreak for Bournemouth
From the brink of a famous victory to the depths of despair at a chance lost. Bournemouth’s fans might have happily taken a point before kickoff, but this must have felt like a defeat. They were furious at referee Oliver, booing him from the field after his decision to show Francis a red card for what appeared to be a simple foul. But there are positives to take from this display.
This team refuse to accept their given status as plucky minnows doggedly holding on to a creed of pretty, but flawed, attacking football. Howe’s side have a big-club attitude; they impose themselves on games. They did it at Swansea on New Year’s Eve, setting about their task as if they were Premier League giants making short work of a lower-league team in the cup. That, given Swansea’s form, was understandable. But to do it to Arsenal…
Of course, the problem with playing such expressive, attacking football is that it will leave gaps at the back. Bournemouth conceded 67 goals last season, and they’ve shipped 34 already this term. The price of progressive football.
3. A turning point for Arsenal?
Arsenal will face criticism for much of their play here, but they may well draw great solace from the recovery. Their own fans were singing, “This is an embarrassment,” before their first goal was scored and they were right. It was a stunningly poor display. But it didn’t matter. They kept pushing, they kept fighting, and though they enjoyed the benefits of a fortunate dismissal, they did claim their equaliser. One in the eye for the critics who continue to accuse them of lacking character.
In an instant, Arsenal have changed the story. Defeat would have brought a vicious inquisition, and the pressure ahead of their FA Cup tie with Preston North End would have been intense. Instead, they have something they can build on: the knowledge that they can pull themselves back from the precipice. They need it. Because they can’t afford to play again as they did for the first 70 minutes.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.