By Nik Brumsack
“The immediate impression from after the game hasn’t changed a lot. We put the effort in - we had absolutely the work rate and the energy level but we just couldn’t finish on the night.”
After a jittery January, Arsenal’s start to February could scarcely have been more frustrating.
Arsène Wenger’s side had 22 shots - the most they have managed in the league since September - against Southampton on Tuesday night, 11 of which hit the target. Yet a combination of Fraser Forster's heroics and some errant finishing prevented the Gunners from securing a first league win since January 2.
Four Premier League games without a win have seen Arsenal move from two points clear at the top of the division to five points behind leaders Leicester City. And Wenger’s team have failed to score in the last three of those matches.
“It is always very difficult to identify one isolated factor,” the manager told Arsenal Player. “[Against Southampton] we put the effort in - we had absolutely the workrate and the energy level but we just couldn’t finish on the night. We should have scored, normally on our model, four goals. But we didn’t score.
“I will say it’s a little bit linked with belief. We’ve practised quite well in front of goal but I think sometimes, on the night, you want to be a bit more forceful and you’re not relaxed enough.
“You must give credit to the keeper too - he made some great saves. We have to believe that if we produce games of quality, that won’t happen in every single game.”
Wenger’s men face more south-coast opposition on Sunday. Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth have adapted well to their first season in the English top flight and come into the weekend’s fixture seven points clear of the relegation zone and with only one defeat in 2016. Unsurprisingly, the manager is predicting a tricky afternoon.
“We’ve been here so many times, talking about our next opponent, and have come to the same conclusion: that it’s a difficult opponent. We know that. They have just won at Crystal Palace and that means they are a good team.”
One to watch
It was even more surprising that Arsenal drew a blank on Tuesday night when taking into account that Mesut Ozil created 10 chances - a Premier League high for any player in a single match this season.
An uncharacteristically quiet January saw Ozil fail to add to the 16 league assists he provided before the turn of the year. However, on the basis of his encouraging performance against Southampton, the German looks to be on the way to recapturing his very best form.
“It is of course vital that players who provide you with the chances continue to do it,” Wenger said. “I believe that he has done that in a convincing fashion, in a quiet fashion again, because he’s not the kind of guy who shouts.
|Bournemouth: Wilson (knee), Mings (knee), Gradel (knee), Stanlislas (knee - doubt)
Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Welbeck (knee), Cazorla (knee), Rosicky (thigh)
“He’s a guy who shows by example and what people forget is the workrate he puts into a game like that and the efficiency he has shown consistently. I think we will need a completely focused Ozil until the end [if we are] to do extremely well this season.”
Ozil started alongside Alexis for the first time since last November in midweek. Wenger was pleased with how they combined.
“They have a very strong link play and a very good understanding and penetration in the final third. What you want is to give them more options around them. That’s the target now in our team, to create more offensive options around them.
“We have to be faithful to our offensive game. We are a team who love to score goals and that’s why I think we have to continue to work on going forward, to be more efficient.”
Bournemouth’s primary threat on Sunday is likely to come from a familiar source.
Benik Afobe has wasted no time in making his mark in the Premier League, with goals in three of his first four games since arriving at Dean Court from Wolverhampton Wanderers in mid-January.
The Cherries’ record signing spent well over a decade honing his talents at Arsenal, scoring at a prolific rate for academy sides that included close friend Jack Wilshere, before moving to Wolves at the start of 2015.
Only five players across the English league pyramid scored more goals than Afobe during that calendar year, and Wenger is expecting the striker to provide his side’s back four with a thorough test on Sunday.
“His biggest strength is that his movement in the box is good,” the boss explained. “His finishing is good, he has good pace and the timings of his runs are good. We need of course full concentration at the back to stop him from being efficient. Overall I believe the best way to stop him is by having the ball.
“You want to influence lives in a positive way, and Arsenal does that a lot,” Wenger added. “Not all the players can play for Arsenal but those who cannot play for us and make a great career somewhere else, we are happy for them, because we have contributed somewhere to their success and we are proud of it.”