Arsenal started brightly in their midday matchup with Newcastle, going close with two opportunities in the first ten minutes. Then Newcastle started to settle in and had three great chances of their own to take the lead. Each went wanting, with Petr Cech manning the space between the posts like a man who just set the clean sheet record, and Arsenal finally opened the scoring in the 72nd minute, as an Ozil corner was headed straight up in the air, then nudged forward by an excellent Giroud header that Koscielny cut in front of and slotted to the far corner just in front of Rob Elliot. Wenger soon brought on Gibbs and Chambers and the Gunners were able to hold on for a valuable three points, gaining ground on Leicester City (who were held to a disappointing 0-0 draw with Bournemouth that included a missed penalty) while keeping their three-point advantage over a Manchester City team that scored twice late to steal three points from Watford (2-1). Three thoughts on the game:
1. Koscielny to the Rescue: Koscielny is quietly among the best central defenders in all of England, with Arsenal consistently boasting a better point total when he is in versus absent from the starting lineup. He combines speed with good positioning and the ability to get in a tight or lunging tackle to arrest danger. In his 17 league appearances this season, he is averaged 1.6 successful tackles, 3.8 interceptions, 5.4 clearances, .9 blocks and only .9 fouls (according to whoscored.com). He completes 87.5% of his passes and is substantially more adventurous than his partner Mertesacker, occasionally sending the ball forward for a counterattack or to push the offensive momentum, earning an overall average rating of 7.52 for the season. And his goal today (his third of the campaign) provided a valuable three points as those around him struggled to deal with a Newcastle team that largely dominated their trip to North London. While most of the Gunners looked rather jaded throughout, possibly the result of the busy holiday season and the lengthy injury list, Koscielny was lively and pushed forward to score the winner with the instincts of a striker. His goal against West Brom a few season’s ago was the difference for Arsenal keeping its place in the Champions League and the goal today kept Man City at bay, at least for another week.
2. Wins that Win Titles: It is a little over a year and a half ago when Gooners across the world sat staring at the television screen in disbelief. A chance to finally end their trophy drought seemed in tatters, 2-0 down to a Hull City team that had just almost made it three. And yet the players on the pitch seemed to settle and, when Cazorla snatched one back, there was a sense the Gunners could still win the game. They went on to do just that in extra time and the dusty silverware cabinet finally had a new friend to greet its aging forebears. Last season, the title race was lost before it really began, but the Gunners did go on a second half tear that almost shocked a Chelsea team well in the lead before a late season fade and a second consecutive FA Cup victory. Those important wins appear to have changed the psychological makeup of a team that lacked the winning spirit of the ones that hauled in three league titles and four FA Cups in a seven-year stretch that ended with the Invincibles claiming that fourth FA Cup in 2004.
Even with major injury troubles, missing their player of the season from 2014-15 (Sanchez) and playing uninspired football in the rain, the Gunners were able to steal all three points against a spirited Newcastle challenge, keeping their position at the perch of the table. Sure, there are still 18 games to go, including a matchup at Anfield in the next fixture, but wins like this are a necessity on the march to a title, as Chelsea, United and City have shown over the past few seasons. Mourinho, more than anyone, can attest to the “winning ugly” formula as a key ingredient in his success. The fact Wenger has finally figured out (or maybe remembered?) that the beautiful game must sometimes be played scrappily could mean that fourth league crown is on the horizon. The players certainly seem to believe and that may be the difference as we head into the New Year.
3. Newcastle Need a Consistent Striker: This was an impressive performance by the Magpies, who could easily have been up one or two nil before Arsenal snatched the 72nd minute winner. Cech was his imperious best in keeping them at bay, but three great chances were ultimately blown by Wijnaldum and Mitrovic, allowing Arsenal to garner all three points. A better finisher might have taken one of those chances and at least earned them a valuable point, if not an even more valuable win. Instead they remain mired in the relegation zone on 17 points from 20 games played. They have shown improvement in recent weeks, but are a bit of an enigma, looking great one game and terrible the next (or even within the same match), with no real pattern emerging. One clear issue, however, is the lack of goals, as they have scored a miserly 19 for the season, only surpassed in maladroitness by Swansea (17) and Aston Villa (16). The window is open and rumors have surfaced regarding a move for Charlie Austin. Securing his services, or another able finisher, could be the difference between staying up and heading back into the Championship just when the Premier League revenue boost kicks in. One assumes the astute businessman side of Ashley’s Janus faced persona will lead him to spend the money necessary to take advantage of a quality midfield and marginally improved defense. Otherwise, he’ll be staring up at the profits that could have been.