Playing badly and winning is often said to be the mark of champions. So, if Arsenal go on to win their fourth Premier League title this season, then we may be looking back at Saturday’s 1-0 result as an example of an ugly but crucial victory against a stubborn Newcastle United side.
Flamini, Mertesacker and Monreal returned to the side with Oxlade-Chamberlain retaining his place despite just one assist in his previous 34 league games for the Gunners. Koscielny’s 72nd minute header was the turning point after heading home a flick from Giroud from a set-piece. The Frenchman now has three goals against the Magpies.
Prior to the goal, Arsenal were fairly shaky, and the game was even — in terms of chances and possession — with Newcastle proving yet again that they save their best performances for the top teams. A second goal looked more likely than an equalizer as both teams tired following a busy period of games and the ability to push forward became more difficult for the away side. A solid victory for the Gunners and Wenger will be pleased that the potentially confidence-sapping defeat against Southampton now seems far away as the Gunners sit pretty at the summit of the league.
Here are five talking points from the game:
1. Wenger’s Rigid Tactics
Wenger has very rarely been a manager to adapt his tactics or team to neutralize the opponent’s strengths, which is why the victory away against Manchester City last season was seen as such a vital win as Arsenal sat deep, absorbed pressure and counter-attacked their way to an impressive victory. Against Newcastle, Wenger put Flamini straight back into the team following his injury last week and left Oxlade-Chamberlain in the side despite hugely lacking in confidence following a lengthy run of games without an assist or goal to his name. Wenger’s commitment to playing the right way and allowing his forwards the freedom to express themselves has been a big part of the reason why he is the most successful manager in Arsenal’s history and the longest serving manager in the Premier League, but will he be able to grind out results in the same way that Mourinho did last year with Chelsea?
The decline in standards of the Premier League’s top clubs this season has meant that Arsenal have their best chance to become Champions for a long time and it would be a shame if Wenger’s rigidness becomes their undoing.
2. Rest needed
The Christmas period has been hard on most teams, as always, and Arsenal are no different and that was evident in Saturday’s game with the whole front line looking tired and frustrated at different periods in the game. Ozil has had a remarkable run of form and still covered over 10km against Newcastle, but the movement of Giroud, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey was limited and when that happens the German struggles to create chances on his own.
Also, with the creativity starting further up the pitch following Cazorla’s injury, ball retention has suffered and that was most evident in with just 51% of the possession in a game where keeping the ball, having patience and tiring the opponent would have been a functional approach to the game. Fortunately, the return of several squad players and possible addition of a couple more in the next few weeks will be timely as the squad competes in the league, domestic cup and in Europe.
3. Coquelin still missed
One of the biggest success stories of last season was the emergence of Francis Coquelin as the starting defensive midfielder in a team that changed in order to accommodate his attributes and Cazorla’s new role in central midfield. His dual ability to press and intercept high up the pitch and tackle in deep positions means that he quickly became a vital player especially in games similar to Saturday’s against Newcastle. Flamini and Chambers have been the understudies whilst Coquelin has been out with Arteta, probably the next in line for that position, also injured. Flamini offers a feisty tackler and a decent user of the ball whereas Chambers offers physicality up and down the pitch but Coquelin has consistently offered a combination of all of their skills. The imminent signing of Mohamed Elneny from Basel could fill that skill gap but should not be relied upon so early in his Arsenal career and in such a crucial run of games. Hopefully, the frustration over Wenger’s reluctance to buy a defensive midfielder in the summer will not come back to haunt the Arsenal manager whom must have been away of Elneny given how quickly that transfer seems to have been realized.
4. Forward options lacking
With Giroud and Walcott both scoring goals regularly in recent weeks, the lack of depth of Arsenal’s forward line has been almost forgotten. Unlike prior years, the Gunners have cover in every defensive position including a goalkeeper with the most clean sheets in Premier League history and, despite recent injuries, several options in the defensive midfield role. What Arsenal doesn’t have at the moment are forward options with Welbeck coming back soon but not ever being a consistent goal scorer and Sanchez injured for at least a few more weeks. In Saturday’s game against Newcastle, it was the defensive solidarity that resulted in the victory and it’s vital that both the attacking and defensive sides of the team play well but the ability to keep a clean sheet will mean that the lack of cutting edge going forward in some games may be covered up.
5. Importance of Cech
Arsenal’s only summer transfer was probably the best piece of business in the league and one of the most important in recent history for the Gunners. The confidence he gives the back four has been clear since the start of the season and the game against Newcastle could have gone a different way if it wasn’t for the big Czech. His presence, security from set pieces and communication have all benefitted the team and his role in bouncing back from defeats and dealing with sustained periods of pressure in matches have been hugely important to the success of the team. When he returned to the Champions League side following the two defeats suffered under Ospina’s watch, the difference not only in the quality between the goalkeepers but the knock-on effect to the rest of the side was clear and from his early jitters against West Ham on the opening day, he has settled into the side as well as could ever be expected. There is no surprise that his introduction correlates with the best chance Arsenal have of winning the league since their last great goalkeeper Jens Lehmann left the club. When compared to Szczesny, Almunia and even Ospina, there is no question that a goalkeeper of his stature has been long overdue and is a rare example of Wenger purchasing an experienced player for an obviously weak position in the starting eleven.
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