Adaptability was the order of the day as Unai Emery’s resilient Arsenal eased their way to a 2-1 victory at Bournemouth on Sunday.
The sort of fixture the Gunners were like to have thrown away last season, there was a measure of control in the way Emery’s men went about their work on the south coast, even if they relied on a little slice of good luck to see them through.
It was much-needed shot in the arm for the team coming off the back of four draws in five games, a run which wobbled a bit of confidence among fans buoyed by the positive way in which the team had started its new era.
And, but for some truly Arsenal-esque stuff in the final 10 minutes, it was a performance which saw the Gunners exert a measure of control over the hosts, keeping them under pressure while nullifying the greater part of their attacking threat.
Greater defensive solidity was a key concern for many ahead of the match, particularly in light of the way teams had been carving out very presentable opportunities against us in that mini run of draws which gave us all the jitters.
Clearly, Emery is a man who does his homework and is not so preoccupied with matters at the top end of the pitch that he is above addressing the shortcomings at the defensive end.
The switch to a back three was one acknowledgement of the problems we had been facing in the last month or so and, while not perfect, it was a bold move and one which the players seemed to take to. It certainly seemed to have an impact on our defending, along with a greater sense of responsibility from some of our players occupying the wide positions.
Whether 3-4-3 will serve as our go-to formation in the months ahead, or whether the manager will look to change as needed, remains to be seen but having that level of flexibility and adaptability would seem to be an advantage.
Coming from a regime in which formation changes were seen as an epoch-shift, it is refreshing indeed to see someone so willing to make tweaks and changes in response to the needs of the team. Over-tinkering is not always best, of course, but in this case it seems to be effective.
I still believe, as many others do, that we are one or two players short of mounting a serious and sustained top four challenge and I believe those new recruits may be defensive ones.
A high-calibre central defender and a left back to match could iron out what remains of the wrinkles of the Arsene Wenger era. Such recruits would not make us perfect, but they would, hopefully, remove the tendency we have to do silly things in big moments in crucial areas of the pitch.
Until those appointments are made, however, we must play the hand we are dealt and it is certainly not the worse hand at the table. I had expected Bournemouth to pose much more of a threat than they ultimately did but the way in which we kept control of the ball for long periods ensured they seldom found enough momentum to really turn the screw. That was as impressive as it was unexpected.
Our ball recoveries and interceptions were also good, as was our passing in general. Moving the ball intelligently out of defence has been something of a problem against higher-pressing teams but not so on Sunday. Our back three rarely overcomplicated and were always in good positions to receive the ball when needed.
Lucas Torriera and Granit Xhaka (despite another few of his lapses) made for an excellent combination in the centre of the pitch and are going the right way about making those starting berths their own.
The performance was only really peppered with a few negatives, the foremost of those being our decision making. At 2-1, we had two of three excellent chances to put the points beyond doubt but those were spurned carelessly. Both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mhikitaryan were especially culpable, with both proving rash when well placed to score.
While it ultimately didn’t prove costly, efficiency in front of goal is absolutely vital over the course of a season and, at the very least, you have to hope players of their talent can find the target on the majority of occasion, particularly in those ‘big chance’ scenarios.
That aside, we can all look back on a victory with a good deal of satisfaction, a victory that opens up some daylight between us and the mid-table pretenders, a group into which defeat could have seen us tumble.