Arsenal coast past Bournemouth but fans know bigger tests lay ahead
LONDON -- There is a simple truth in football that you can only beat the opponents in front of you. As such, Arsenal could hardly have had a more satisfying afternoon against a Bournemouth side that barely raised a whimper in the north London drizzle.
It was a performance crisp and aggressive enough to cast that 4-0 debacle of a defeat at Liverpool a little further into the past, but the Emirates Stadium faithful have seen too much to let themselves get carried away. A question lingered in the air as their team coasted to victory: Does any of this really change anything?
Perhaps the feeling would have been more vibrant had Arsenal been in anything resembling a fight. There was nothing to stir the senses here bar a procession toward the starkly obvious. Bournemouth were, as their manager Eddie Howe admitted afterwards, extremely poor and miles short of the verve that has characterised their rise to Premier League stability.
Arsenal did the job professionally and at times with real style, but it will take more than this to heal the fault lines and that was clear enough in the reception that Alexis Sanchez, introduced in the 74th minute, received on his first home appearance of this season.
Wenger sought to play it down but the boos -- mixed equally, in fairness, with applause -- were there, and it was a reminder that Arsenal, as well as the player who was the fans' darling, have fallen far. Sanchez walked straight down the tunnel at full-time, having put in a lively enough cameo that might have been crowned with a goal had Asmir Begovic not beaten his late shot away.
The Chilean forward's application during his short appearance could not be questioned, but it is far from ideal that the trust between footballer and fan base evidently needs to be rebuilt.
"Alexis will win the fans back and win them back very quickly," Wenger said after the game. "We have to accept responses from people. The best way to get them on your side is to perform."
The same applies to Wenger and the majority of Sanchez's teammates, who played in a largely muted atmosphere that livened up a little as Arsenal pulled clear. With the evident improvements also came intense frustrations.
What if Sead Kolasinac, whose rampaging overlap and accurate cross allowed Danny Welbeck to open the scoring via a shoulder, had been allowed to do the same at Liverpool? The Bosnian full-back's vigour, at both ends of the field, was worlds apart from anything offered by his colleagues 13 days ago.
Meanwhile, what if Alexandre Lacazette, such a marvellous finisher and completely unerring when Welbeck's good work gave him the chance to double Arsenal's lead from 18 yards, had been trusted to do exactly the same in a match of higher stakes?
The two summer signings were among Arsenal's best performers, but it would be difficult to allow Wenger much credit for that. It might be easier to shine against a passive Bournemouth than at a throbbing Anfield, but that is hardly the point.
While Arsenal had bigger problems that day, the decision to omit Kolasinac and Lacazette at Liverpool was one of a series that backfired. It seemed grimly apt that they both made quick, decisive impacts here, and if nothing else, both should have guaranteed starting places for next Sunday's visit to Chelsea.
That fixture at Stamford Bridge will be the true measure of Arsenal's response to the low points from August; this was an afternoon on which it soon became clear they would not lose, and it was noticeable that Howe cast the fault firmly on his own team's shoulders rather than extolling the virtues of the home side.
"It was very, very disappointing from our perspective, a poor performance from start to finish," he said. "On the ball we were really wasteful, negative and slow, and that's really unlike us. Normally we have a good rhythm."
If Bournemouth, still to earn a point this season, do not find some presence in midfield and attack alongside a modicum of defensive organisation, they will be mired in a relegation fight. They were outbattled as well as outplayed and perhaps the biggest plus for Arsenal was in that fact.
Kolasinac was a warrior on the left; Shkodran Mustafi, who was recalled after a mooted transfer to Inter Milan fell through, covered assiduously at the back, and Welbeck was a relentless presence from his attacking perch on the left, tracking back frequently to double up on Bournemouth's wingers.
"Overall we had a committed, disciplined and defensively very good performance," Wenger said. Those boxes could all be ticked, but he was wise to curb his effusiveness. Arsenal were clapped politely off the pitch by an audience that, purely in the context of this afternoon, was happy enough.
Chants in support of the manager were conspicuous by their absence, though, and the sense is that he owes them a winning decision or two in the type of fixture that has seen them almost routinely humiliated in recent times.
Fans will also demand a performance when it matters from Sanchez as the barest minimum. If this was the first small step back in the right direction for Arsenal, there is no escaping that Stamford Bridge is the only place to make it seem real.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.