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Arsenal learn key title race lesson in nerve-shredding Bournemouth win

A scoreline that would have been predicted, but from a match that shredded nerves. Arsenal may not know if they will be Premier League champions, but they certainly know what it’s like to be pushed to the edge in a run-in. Bournemouth more than did their bit in a 3-0 Arsenal win that, for the moment, puts them four points clear of Manchester City but with two more games played.

Declan Rice’s added-time goal capped Arsenal’s hard-fought win (Arsenal FC/Getty)
Declan Rice’s added-time goal capped Arsenal’s hard-fought win (Arsenal FC/Getty)

The expectation that Pep Guardiola’s team would go and win their four remaining matches hung over everything, especially Bukayo Saka’s 45th-minute penalty. If you wanted a scene to capture the deepest tension in a stadium, this was it. Saka rolled it in to bring relief but not yet total release. Andoni Iraola’s Bournemouth made Arsenal do much more.

They might even argue that they didn’t deserve to go behind like that, given how Kai Havertz went down. It was one of those typical “manufactured” penalties where an attacker clearly trails a leg to exploit a goalkeeper’s needlessly outstretched foot. Arsenal would meanwhile point to an abrasive foul by Ryan Christie on Saka early on that drew blood but went unpunished.

Bournemouth were certainly drawing a sweat, putting everything into this. That is why there was such tension and such relief – and maybe why Havertz took the opportunity to go down in the way he did.

Arsenal weren’t yet desperate but they were getting increasingly frantic. It was a vintage run-in game in that sense, where the stakes brought even more out of a good opposition side. Bournemouth weren’t going to be mere fodder: they gave Arsenal a much tougher challenge than Chelsea or Tottenham had.

The added frustration was that Arsenal’s first 20 minutes was one of their best spells of pure football this season. Emotionally, however, it was also one of their most fraying. It didn’t help that the finishing didn’t match their general play.

Havertz earnt penalty that Saka converted to release some Arsenal tension (Getty)
Havertz earnt penalty that Saka converted to release some Arsenal tension (Getty)

Arteta’s side were very clearly on it but so too was Bournemouth’s defence. Arsenal through that spell had an attack every 35 seconds and a shot on goal every two minutes. Some of those should have put them in the clear, except so many of their players were putting the ball wide or over.

Thomas Partey snatched at one when it sat up. Havertz skied another. Maybe most anxiously of all, Declan Rice put the ball just wide when it refused to drop. It was looking like that kind of day. It didn’t help that so many Bournemouth bodies were in the way when Arsenal did have an effort on target. Both Martin Odegaard and Leandro Trossard had shots charged down with full-blooded commitment. Takehiro Tomiyasu had a header cleared off the line. Mark Travers seemed equal to anything that got past that, with three fine saves.

Bournemouth had barely been outside their box for 25 minutes. It was finally when that bit of space developed that Havertz sensed opportunity. He had been put through to go around Travers, only for the goalkeeper to lead with his leg. Havertz kept his leg back and went over.

Havertz earned a penalty for a foul by Mark Travers (Getty)
Havertz earned a penalty for a foul by Mark Travers (Getty)

It was looked at by VAR and referee David Coote confirmed the penalty. There might be a wider argument over whether this type of penalty should be ruled out of the game, given they have become such a staple for everyone from Michael Owen to Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane. Havertz might just say they’re still part of the game as it is.

It set up the winning of this contest, although not as assuredly as might have been expected. Bournemouth immediately went from a superb defensive display to an admirable attacking one, as Dominic Solanke caused all manner of problems. Arsenal had to be tuned in. William Saliba had already rescued Gabriel from one rare slip. They stayed strong, Rice personifying their approach in how he would win a block near his area before striding forward.

There was still that immersive tension about the occasion, Arsenal aware that any slip could bring back so many agonising memories from last season.

Trossard, set up by an exquisite flicked pass from Rice, eventually scored the clinching goal before Rice put a real gloss on it at the end with the third, beating Travers with a fiercely struck low effort.

Declan Rice wrapped up the win late on but it wasn’t a comfortable day for Arsenal (Getty)
Declan Rice wrapped up the win late on but it wasn’t a comfortable day for Arsenal (Getty)

Bournemouth didn’t deserve that scale of defeat. Arsenal undeniably deserved the points, though.

As for the title, they're now in another nervously exciting situation. They have to watch two Manchester City matches before going to Old Trafford next week for a game that will be enlivened by so many narratives, and some high stakes.

It might well come down to that. This season could yet end as everyone predicted but it already looks like it will shred every nerve until then.