It was fitting, really. The way the ball reluctantly trickled over the line. Hector Bellerin’s 52nd-minute goal was liberating, yet agonizingly imperfect. And in the end, insufficient – just like Arsenal in what could be the first game of a new era.
The Gunners have played without Alexis Sanchez before, but never with a suspicion, which bordered on a knowledge, that the Chilean forward will never play for the club again. He missed Sunday’s game at Bournemouth as his transfer saga, accelerated by his expiring contract, hurtles toward a conclusion.
With Mesut Ozil also set for free agency this summer and also out of the 18 down on England’s south coast, it was only natural for Sunday’s match to be viewed as a barometer. As 90 minutes to gauge Arsenal’s readiness for life without its two stars. And even if that view encourages overreaction, there was some truth to it.
Truth that proved distressing for Arsenal.
The Gunners struck first at Bournemouth, but collapsed midway through the second half and lost 2-1. Their attack lacked cutting edge in the final third. Their aging goalkeeper and inexperienced, inadequate center backs were guilty on Bournemouth’s equalizer. Their midfield was as invisible as ever on the winner.
The problems that led to the goals aren’t new ones. It is far from revelatory that Calum Chambers and Rob Holding can’t anchor a top-four defense; that Granit Xhaka isn’t the holding midfielder that Arsene Wenger has refused to deploy for years.
But the problems were exacerbated and exposed with no Sanchez or Ozil to hide behind. And they’ll continue to be. That’s why Sunday was so worrying. Arsenal was mediocre, yes. But that’s not the concern.
The concern is that there’s also no telling how many more flaws could come to light when the two catalysts eventually leave for good. Sanchez looks certain to depart, and likely to do so within a few weeks. Ozil’s injury is legitimate, but the further Arsenal falls, the tougher it is to see him refusing an escape route from this sinking ship.
The ship isn’t suddenly sinking. Arsenal wasn’t awful on Sunday. But it’s the type of loss the club has been building to with steady decline.
Either team could have realistically been in front at halftime. The Gunners were better, especially between the penalty boxes, and came close twice. Danny Welbeck was denied by a sprawling Asmir Begovic. Ainsley Maitland-Niles clipped the crossbar from the left side of a crowded penalty area.
At the other end, Bournemouth had a convincing penalty shout waved away. And it created the best chance of the half after Ibe skinned Maitland-Niles on the right. Ibe’s cross found its way to Ryan Fraser, whose shot was blocked by a sliding Chambers.
Alex Iwobi, one of only a few Arsenal players who offer hope for the future, finally unlocked Bournemouth early in the second half. He turned Charlie Daniels inside-out with a precise through-ball, and Bellerin just barely beat Begovic.
But Arsenal couldn’t hold on. Fraser and Lys Mousset made Maitland-Niles into a training dummy near the touchline. Fraser’s ball met Callum Wilson’s foot in the tight triangle between center backs and goalkeeper. Bournemouth was level.
And then the hosts were in front. And Arsenal was, and is, in free fall.
Surely the crisis cycle – perpetually teetering on the brink, always recovering balance just in time, only to slip dangerously close once again – will break this time. It can’t go on. As top-four hopes fade away for a second consecutive season, surely Wenger must fade away as well. Surely changes must be made, or else Sunday will indeed be a precursor for the post-Alexis era. And a frightening one at that.
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