Sunday, December 14, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal 4 Newcastle 1

Newcastle visited the Emirates today having won seven of their last nine games in all competitions (with a draw in one of the remaining two), including scalps of Liverpool (1-0), Man City (2-0, in the Capital One Cup), Tottenham (2-1) and, of course, Chelsea (2-1) last weekend. Arsenal, on the other hand, continued their up and down season with a 3-2 loss to Stoke before their midweek 4-1 victory over Galatasaray. Fans could not be blamed for being a little nervous, particularly given the uneven form at home this season.

And yet Arsenal started brightly, with the front three of Welbeck, Giroud and Sanchez posing a consistent threat. That threat paid off in the 15th minute, when a wonderful dribble and cross from Sanchez was met by Giroud with a towering header into the far corner. It should have been 2-0 a few minutes later, as Welbeck got in on the right and scored a beautiful goal from an acute angle, only to have it waved off for a ghost foul. Welbeck was in again after a lovely Sanchez chip, but sent it just wide. And then Newcastle had a wonderful chance of their own in the 34th minute, as a Gouffran header was saved on the line by Szczesny. Arsenal thus went into the half 1-0 up, having spurned a few chances to make it two, but happy the ninth back line formation of the season (with Debuchy deputizing next to Mertesacker in the center for the first time in his career, and Gibbs and Bellerin sandwiching them) held firm against a relatively hot team.

The second half started with some clumsy play by Arsenal, sending crosses behind their targets, missing passes and giving the ball away. But in the 54th minute, Cazorla made it two in two with his first goal from open play in 29 games. It started with a Gibbs pass forward to Sanchez, who slotted it beautifully into a charging Cazorla. He bundled the ball after slipping, settled it and then chipped it over the Newcastle third string GK from a tight angle (Emiliano Martinez). Three minutes later, Giroud got his second on a great finish in close, following a marauding run from Ox and pitch-perfect cross from Bellerin (3-0).

But then, in the 63rd minute, Newcastle got back in it after a free kick was headed in by Perez (with some terrible defending by Arsenal not covering the closest man to the ball). It brought back memories of the “Nightmare after Christmas” when Arsenal blew a 4-0 lead to this same Newcastle three years earlier. Cazorla almost got it back to a three-goal lead 30 seconds later, with a just-wide shot that should have been better. Flamini and Gibbs came close within the next six minutes or so minutes as Newcastle continued to struggle to create good chances. In the 73rd minute, Podolski came on for Giroud, in his seventh sub appearance of the season, after scoring twice on Tuesday in his first 90-minute game I can remember with Arsenal. More half chances followed for both teams but no goals.

In the 86th minute, Wenger made a surprise move, taking off Sanchez for the more defense-minded Coquelin (called back early from his loan because of all the injuries). Cazorla sent a beautiful pass to Welbeck in the box moments later and Arsenal had their second penalty in two league games. Cazorla grabbed the ball and scored his third goal in his last two, with a nice Panenka, as the hapless Martinez dove right. And then the third Arsenal sub came on in the 90th, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles making his EPL debut for Ox. And so it ended 4-1 Arsenal, for the second game running.

1. Voodoo Curse?: while the victory was deserved and timely, one has to start wondering if there is a hex on Arsenal this year, as yet another player went down this week – the suddenly super hot Aaron Ramsey, who will be out three to four weeks. He is added to the list that includes Ozil (hopefully back in early January), Wilshere (whose career appears to be in danger of collapsing at this point – out for another long spell after surgery on his ankle), Koscielny (a supposedly minor achilles injury that is starting to look anything but minor, though he has added a calf knock as well), Arteta (calf, already out three weeks), Monreal (foot), Theo Walcott (who picked up a groin injury five weeks ago right after coming back and is starting to train again), Rosicky (thigh), Ospina (back soon), Gnarby (Knee), but not Diaby (not sure where the hell he is these days). And the refs haven’t been helping lately, with the two rather soft fouls on Chambers meaning the Gunners had to complete the comeback against Stoke with 10 men (which they obviously didn’t) and then a few head scratchers today including what should have been a 2-0 lead when Welbeck scored in the first half. Giroud and Debuchy are back though, and with Ozil and Walcott weeks away, along with the Winter Transfer Window, one hopes the second half goes a little more smoothly.

2. Bellerin/Chambers/Monreal/Debuchy: I, among many, have been consistently critical of Wenger for not getting more defensive cover before the summer window closed, criticism that was quickly shown to be depressingly accurate. Yet looking at what Wenger has done to deal with the injuries, further criticism can certainly be meted out. Among the most obvious question is why Monreal, rather than Chambers, played through the middle for long stretches of the period when Debuchy and Koscielny were both out? Bellerin was impressive on both ends of the pitch today and was available to play right back in many of those games, which could have moved Chambers to his more natural role as CB and Monreal and or Gibbs out right. One can think particularly of the Swansea game, where Chambers was being burned down the right most of the game, leading to the 2-1, come from behind, loss. Chambers has also been piling up cards and while the two last weekend were soft, could benefit from playing through the middle, rather than on the right. Yet another question to ask Wenger.

3. Wenger’s Bold Play: on the other hand, one should give credit where credit is due, and I thought it was a bold move to play Welbeck, Giroud and Sanchez up top, with only Cazorla and Ox to provide cover in front of Flamini and the back four. Putting all 5’10 of Debuchy at Center Half was also a somewhat bold move, though few alternatives existed with Kos and Monreal out and Chambers suspended for the game. It is clear that the Gunners are starting to play smooth attacking football again, having scored 10 goals in the last two and a half games. But they were lucky not to concede two or three today and really need to shore up the defensive side of the pitch if they are to ensure a top four finish and fight for a repeat FA Cup victory (the only realistic silverware available this season, I think).

Overall, Arsenal have been playing good football since the unlucky loss to United on November 22, except for the first half against Stoke last Saturday. While I think serious questions can still be asked of Wenger, he appears to be settling the squad a bit and getting them to perform well through an endless list of injuries. Next Sunday they play a struggling Liverpool at Anfield before returning home for QPR and then back away against an impressive West Ham team. Win those three games, though, and the Gunners should be closing in or within the Top 4. They currently sit sixth, equal with fifth place Southampton on points (thought 3 goals behind on GD) and only two points behind that same West Ham they will meet on the 28th. COYG!

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