Saturday, March 21, 2015

Arsenal Sneak to Sixth Straight Win at Newcastle (2-1)

Arsenal headed to St. James Park today knowing Newcastle were suffering through an injury and suspension crisis and that they were undefeated in their last ten games here (and had only lost one of the last 18 overall). After a sluggish start, Giroud scored two quality goals in quick succession, seemingly all but settling the match just as Newcastle appeared ready to give it a real go. The first came from a Cazorla free kick that was headed by Welbeck right into the path of Giroud, who reacted quickly to direct it into the far corner with his knee. Welbeck should have made it two less than a minute later, as a lovely touch, turn and pass by Sanchez gave his a free shot from 11 yards out that he got terribly wrong, sending it wide. A moment later, Sanchez sent him through on goal for what should have been an easy finish, but his first touch was heavy and the chance was gone again. Luckily, Giroud is in imperious form, and his 28th minute header from a corner was perfectly placed into the far corner without even leaving the ground. And so Arsenal headed into the break with a relatively comfortably 2-0 lead, recognizing that the Chelsea lead would drop to four points if they held on (though the Blues have two games in hand).

The second half started with Newcastle looking dangerous and then, in the 48th minute, Cabella sent in a cross that Sissoko finished well into the far corner to make it 2-1. Like far too many games this season, Arsenal took what should have been a comfortable win and let their opponents back in with some slack defending and lack of poise on the ball. A fine shot from Perez just missed the far corner moments later and after a poor pass from Coquelin, Perez drove down and got off another shot, though this one was wide. All of a sudden, Arsenal were giving the ball away, committing fouls and looking discombobulated. Welbeck led a break in the 54th minute, but again sent a terrible pass into the middle that was easily cleared, killing the threat. Then a terrible back pass from Ramsey after a good battle in the middle, led to another Newcastle attack, though Sanchez ultimately got the ball back. In the 59th minute, Arsenal were pushing forward to stem the Newcastle wave of attacks when yet another loose pass from Welbeck left me wondering why he was still on the pitch and whether Wenger had fallen asleep on the sideline or again forgotten that he has substitute completely.

Two minutes later, Gouffran probably should have equalized with a free shot from a few yards out after a corner (that included a penalty appeal for handball on Monreal). Ospina had a fine save soon after and then Janmaat sent in a quality shot on 66 minutes that flew just wide. Arsenal got forward for a rare foray, but a bad pass from Coquelin quickly ended their possession. It was becoming increasingly inexplicable why Wenger wasn’t changing the team up with a sub or two to settle things down and see out the win. And then he finally did so, with Flamini and Rosicky coming on for Sanchez and Cazorla in the 71st minute, right after an incorrect offsides call took away a chance for Giroud to snag his hat trick. Flamini appeared to catch the apparently contagious “give away”disease almost immediately, giving Newcastle a chance after his first pass of the afternoon went wayward. On 73 minutes, Cissoko muscled the ball from Coquelin after a short spell of Gunner possession and sent it to Cabella, who finished a nice run with a decent shot, though it was blocked and safely collected by Ospina. With less than 20 minutes to play, Newcastle were looking like the far superior team and likely to equalize. In the 77th, a nutmeg past Chambers left Guttierez free down the left and he sent a dangerous pass across goal, that luckily no one was there to meet. Welbeck got free down the left soon after, but he cut off his own angle and shot meekly at Krul in the end.

Newcastle were playing with great hunger and determination and the Gunners holding on for dear life, having trouble putting together more than two or three passes at a time, with Ramsey and Welbeck giving the ball away almost every time they touched it. Koscielny blocked a shot that was headed toward goal in the 86th, leading to a corner that Ospina ultimately collected to momentarily relieve the frenetic pace of the game. Newcastle inexplicably took off Ameobi and brought on a youngster with two minutes left, undermining their own momentum and giving Arsenal the chance to finally take off Welbeck and replace him with Bellerin. Ospina again collected a cross just before four minutes of extra time started. Giroud earned an important free kick after wonderful holdup play and Arsenal suddenly started to control possession, with Bellerin almost executing a cross to Giroud for a simple tap in, though Krul snatched it impressively. And after a last Newcastle attack, the whistle finally blew and Arsenal had somehow held on for the 2-1 win, even though they were thoroughly outplayed in the second 45.

That makes it six in six for the Gunners for the first time since early 2012, though, important as Man City, Tottenham and Southampton won their games today. They will, of course, now pick up on United, Liverpool or both after their game tomorrow. Three quick thoughts on the win:

1. Welbeck Wobbles: Danny Welbeck can never be accused of lack of effort in a game and his goal against United a few weeks ago might well add itself to the annals of the history of that famed rivalry. He is always good for a great dribble or two, some decent passing, a nice cut toward goal and tracking back well. But three things he still fails to get right too often are his first touch, his passing around the box and, of course, his finishing. Early on in this game he was gifted quality opportunities on two successive occasions. Both times, a terrible first touch eliminated them and that was before the wayward shot and terrible first touch one-on-one with the GK, mentioned above. He did send the header toward Giroud for the first, but was otherwise wasteful and na├»ve around the box and gave the ball away over and over again throughout the game. To me, it’s a question of confidence and intelligence in the final third, something Wenger could certainly work with him on this summer as he tries to take the next step up in quality in his career, but it is worrying that he has continued to demonstrate the very traits that caused United to lose faith in him and allow the sale to their rivals. Given the dearth of goals and assists, one is left to wonder why Walcott can’t seem to get on the pitch with any regularity since returning from injury himself and whether the rumors of his imminent departure might be true.

2. Giroud Purple Patch Continue: Arsenal were struggling early in the game, with Newcastle having a few half chances in the first 20 minutes. But then Giroud got his 16 and 17th goals in quick succession and the game was all but won. It was his fifth league game running with a goal, the first time he has done that at Arsenal, and 8th in his last 9. Both goals showed a level of quality that demonstrates his improvement since returning from injury, with first a clever redirect with almost no time to react and then a beautifully cushioned header into the far corner. Giroud is hot, taking the first half burden off of Sanchez and showing that the pundits were absurdly misguided when they argued the Gunners were a one-man team (particularly as they have the most players that have scored at least one goal of any team in the league).

3. Sanchez Needs a Rest: Aaron Ramsey has shown glimpses of his old form since returning from his latest layoff, scoring in two successive games before today. But Sanchez has had, it must be admitted, a rather poor run of form that started around the time of the New Year. There has been no decline in his incredible work rate, but there has been a marked deterioration in his productivity. He had some lovely passes and some nice dribbles in the game, but seems to be lacking the confidence and killer instinct he showed earlier in the season. With only one goal in his last 12, it appears Wenger needs to give the Chilean a rest sooner rather than later (and not just the final 20 minutes of a game). Wenger admitted as much earlier in the week but inexplicably played Sanchez from the start. He has done better with squad rotation this term than in recent seasons, but it really seems he has to risk upsetting his star if he is to get the best of him for the run-in.

Newcastle are sliding a little (with one win and one draw in their last six), but a great run before Pardew left late last year has essentially ended any fears of relegation rather earlier than some might have expected. With the second half display, they might gain confidence they can finish the campaign on a positive note though. Arsenal, on the other hand, are the second hottest team in the entire league and probably wish they could have put the first half of last season together with this second half, as they would have run away with the virtual title. Instead, they need a miracle to finish at the summit this term, though a true title chase certainly seems in the offing for next year, particularly if Wenger brings in the defensive reinforcements necessary (and if rumors of Cavani are true, another striker that could really contribute to that push).

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