Saturday, August 29, 2015

Arsenal Slip By Newcastle 1-0

Early season crisis brought on, at least to many, by a lack of activity in the transfer window? Check. Disappointing result against a team they usually beat with relative ease? Check. One point from two games at home? Check. Sense that the manager will find a way to undermine his own positive momentum yet again? Check. And so another Arsenal crisis stood just around the corner when they visited St. James Park today to take on a Newcastle side that had just held off United for a 0-0 draw. The Gunners, while struggling at home, are actually unbeaten in their last 10 league games on the road, winning nine since their 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane last February and were dominating the game at Newcastle in the early going, though failing to capitalize on their chances. The best came to Walcott before 10 minutes had passed, when a through pass left him one-on-on with Krul. He needed to make a quick decision, as the pass came with pace, ultimately just bundling it right into the path of Krul. A few minutes later, a clear penalty on Bellerin was missed by Andre Mariner, who then appeared to attempt to make up for that missed decision as Newcastle’s contentious striker Mitrovic, who sometimes seems like he would rather foul than score, was given a straight red for a nasty foul on Coquelin (16’). The red card seemed a little harsh, but he did plant his studs high on Coquelin’s ankle with what appeared like, at least casual, intent.

In the 23rd minute, Arsenal secured their first corner of the game, but Krul easily dealt with Cazorla’s cross. Newcastle were fouling like angry Sunday League scousers, accruing the aforementioned red together with three other yellows. And while one or two seemed marginal, I think it is fair to say they were playing a physical game that bore a striking, and rather troubling, resemblance to the Don Revie Leeds teams of the 70s. In the 31st minute, Sanchez sent a dangerous shot from distance that Krul just got to, pushing it right into the path of a charging Walcott, who somehow missed a completely open goal for his second blown chance in the first 30 minutes. Up a man with a chance to all but bury the game, Walcott appeared to be suffering from the disease besetting all of the Gunners of late, missing clear chances that have to be taken, or at minimum at least shot on goal. Sanchez, Giroud, Ramsey, and the rest have scored on less than 5 percent of their chances this year, reaffirming what every earth dwelling citizen that watches English football not named Arsene knows – Arsenal need a finisher.

In the 39th minute, Walcott missed a third chance of the first half and looked like a striker completely lacking confidence. Chances are being blown regularly and but for a missed penalty today, the own goal and a missed offside call that cost Ramsey a goal Monday, the Gunners look like a team that lacks the killer instinct necessary to win with consistently. A man up to a team that can barely buy a win in 2015, they were suddenly being outplayed by that team, looking as likely to make it three clean sheets out of four – for their opponents. They were playing predictable, slow football, rarely getting a quality shot on goal, or a shot at all (they had 10 in the first half, but only one on goal, the aforementioned tepid effort from Walcott). It is all too reminiscent of Arsenal teams of the past, passing the ball around without real penetration, or even palpable urgency.

The second half began with the Gunners needing a goal to salvage a season quickly running away from them, particularly given Man City’s early season dominance and addition, within the next few hours, of the player of the year in the Bundesliga last season – the Chelsea flunky DeBruyne. Within the first minute of the second half, Sanchez gave the ball away trying to dribble around too many Newcastle defenders and then Ox literally lost the ball, turning around as a Newcastle player collected it. Anita soon made it a fourth yellow for a foul on Sanchez, before another poor pass into the box ended a threat. Cazorla earned the Gunner’s first yellow on 49 minutes, for a relatively minor foul from behind, followed by a yellow for Wijnaldum for protestation, apparently assuming a minor foul deserved a red for Cazorla. Finally, in the 52nd minute, Sanchez got the ball at the top of the box, cut in and for the what seems like the 2,000th time this season had the shot blocked (a couple more followed before the game was done). Luckily for the Gunners, the rebound fell nicely to Ramsey, who sent a powerful shot right at Krul. He parried it out, but right into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who sent it across goal with pace, burying it in the far corner (with an assist to Coloccini, who was ultimately awarded an own goal).

The Gunners finally had their goal and a 1-0 lead. From the restart, Newcastle were suddenly in the attack for the first time since the ice caps began melting, and almost made it count with some incisive passing and a marginal offsides on a clever through ball. Another terrible pass from Sanchez led Newcastle on the counter and only a fine intervention from the speedy Bellerin stopped a promising attack from the home side. Arsenal settled down and were dominating possession on their way to what would be an eighth straight victory over Newcastle, yet the Toons looked occasionally dangerous when they did get forward. Arsenal were continuing to play slowly, though occasional bursts of speed like in the 62nd minute, led to a half chance, undermined by a Monreal cut back a little behind a charging Ox. They were managing the game, nursing the 1-0 lead without really pushing for a second to bury the game. A nice move in the 66th minute, led to a Ramsey cutback to Cazorla, who shot powerfully right at Krul for an easy save. Giroud came on for the ineffective Walcott in the 70th minute and I might have considered taking off Sanchez as well, as he had a third pretty average game in four (but for the header that ultimately became the winner against Crystal, he appears a shell of his former self). Within a couple of minutes, Giroud was offsides and shot wildly from just outside the box. Yet it was clear the team were playing marginally better with him in the side.

A Monreal cross left him with a shot in the 76th minute, though he hit it too close to Krul and the chance was lost. Less than a minute later, Sanchez was almost released in on goal until Krul beat him to the ball. Then the game appeared to shift, as Newcastle went on the offensive with 10 minutes to play, searching out an equalizer from a suddenly shaky Gunner defense. Arteta replaced Ox (81’) to try to shore the three points up and appeared largely successful in that role. In the 83rd minute, Bellerin burst forward with real purpose and style, laying it off to Cazorla, who seemed largely uninterested and blew a decent half chance. Yet another blocked Sanchez shot gave Arsenal a corner with a little more than a minute on the clock; a Monreal shot off the rebound failing to really trouble Krul. Coloccini added insult to injury by earning a sixth yellow, to go with the red, in the 91st minute of the game (and apparently a rather healthy fine for the team). It is surprising the Argentine, who was angling for a move back to his native country two years ago, is still here. Right at the end, Giroud had a great chance to score one on one with Krul, but shot high rather than rolling it low and another chance was gone. It was of little importance as all three points were already secured, though it did provide further evidence this is a team that just cannot seem to take their chances at the moment, with only one goal credited to a Gunner in four games!

Hopes were high heading into this season, the sense the Gunners were a couple of signings away from a real title challenge. Instead the season is beginning to look like the first three months of last season, when they essentially were out of the title race by November. Last season it was due to an injury plague and some lax defending, leading them to only two wins in their first eight. This season began with a flat performance against West Ham, a narrow victory over Leicester and then the stale 0-0 draw against Liverpool (with an assist to the officials). Even as this was a poor performance overall, the three points is what ultimately matters and they are still within striking distance of Man City five points ahead of them. Arsenal have also now won 13 of their last 14 away from home (with only the 1-1 draw at United during that stretch), including the three at Wembley, but it was a fourth average performance this season from a team that many tapped as a potential challenger to Chelsea’s crown. On the evidence of these four games, they are a long way off that goal, possibly as long as Wenger stays at the helm of the club.

Watching the game today reaffirmed a thought I’ve had for some time. Walcott is good when Ozil is playing in the 10 and Arsenal are willing to absorb some pressure. If they are playing against a team sitting back defensively, Walcott doesn’t really provide the threat or presence of Giroud. Two of Arsenal’s three goals have been courtesy of their opponents, which more or less speaks for itself. In case it does not, there is 200 million pounds in the bank waiting to be spent and yet we are forced to watch a winger play centre forward or a striker who is clearly a rung or two below the best in the world lead the line while all the teams around us spend big to improve their clubs; with City adding a world class player they do not even appear to need. To be fair, two wins, a draw and a loss is not a terrible start to a BPL season – particularly when there is a strong argument it should be three wins and a loss but for a poor refereeing decision last Monday. On the other hand, one goal credited to your team in four games and being shut out in five or your last six at home, should turn a few heads.

Some of the Gunners can now rest through the international break while others will have to travel for European qualifiers, leaving Wenger to sit back and hope none of them come back injured or even more tired than they appeared in this game. Upon their return to action, two weeks from today, they face Stoke at the Emirates, trying to recapture their home form, before trips to Chelsea and Leicester and then back home to host Olympiakos, in the Group Stage opener of the UCL and then United in the league The Chelsea and United fixtures stick out, but Arsenal will have to start scoring more goals if they are to navigate through this tricky period without falling further off the pace, or undermining what looks like a pretty navigable path back to the Round of 16 in the Champions League. With a mere three days left in the transfer window, will Wenger surprise us with a world-class signing? I would not hold my breath!

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