Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Newcastle 0 Arsenal 1

It has taken some convincing for pundits and journalists to recognise Arsenal as serious title contenders. A spectacular run of form early in the season didn't convince them. They attributed it to Arsenal's easier fixtures. Comfortable wins and superb performances against Napoli and Liverpool at home were not good enough for them, either. Defeats over the two Manchester clubs significantly undermined our title credentials. However, this "ugly win" over in-form Newcastle, seemed to have impressed more pundits than any of easy-on-the-eye displays did.

Arsene Wenger made four changes from the side that started in the 3-1 win over West Ham on Boxing Day. Jack Wilshere came in for the injured Aaron Ramsey (we are yet to know the prognosis, but signs are not good. Some reports claim that he will be sidelined for at least one month, possibly two) after completing a two-match suspension. Laurant Koscielny resumed his central defensive partnership with Per Mertesacker after recovering from the cut  knee. Thomas Vermaelen was left home due to illness. Tomas Rosicky replaced Mesut Özil after recovering a knock on the knee he sustained during the Chelsea match (some reports stated the Czech international was rested for the West Ham game). Asked about Özil's shoulder injury, Wenger answered in his post-match press conference, "it is an inflamed shoulder, it should be one more week maybe less, I don't know, but not a long time". Keep fingers crossed that he will be fit again for the FA Cup tie against Tottenham. As widely expected, Mathieu Flamini started in place of Mikel Arteta. Nacho Monreal did not make a trip to the Northeast as he also fell ill. Ryo Miyaichi and Serge Gnabry filled the bench, which looked frightening just recently.

Despite the majority of pundits predicting an away win, it was a big challenge to get three points, which we needed to reclaim the top spot. St James' Park is always a difficult place to go. Newcastle are one of the form sides currently in the Premier League, having already beaten Chelsea, Man U, and Tottenham this season. We lost two important players in Özil and Ramsey to injury. In light of these, the three points was a great result, which moved us back to the top of the league, going into the New Year.

Wenger's post-match comment "subconsciously the team wanted to defend" bemused us. It was him that made those defensive substitutions. We somewhat predicted that he would not start Poldi as the boss stated that he intended to introduce the German striker into competitive games slowly, but after his impressive comeback, why Poldi was not used as a sub is a mystery to us. He could have been deployed as a left-winger as we desperately needed width in our attack (even a wide player, Theo, tended to drift into the middle and did not stay wide). The German international could also have replaced Giroud, who appeared to have been playing through the pain.

The back four earned the well-deserved plaudits, but the team defended very well as a unit. Mertesacker, captain of the day, demonstrated his leadership. Arsenal have been accused for lacking a plan B, but now thanks to improvement in defence, we can still get the job done even when we cannot play our brand of free-flowing football. Some fans are worried about Arsenal not having been at their best for a while, but as long as the team gets a result, we have no complaint.

Arsenal showed some steel in the last couple of games. They came from behind to claim a 3-1 victory against West Ham and ground out a result against a good Newcastle side. Winning these kind of games is imperative for maintaining the team's consistency. January fixtures all look winnable. Hopefully, we can widen a gap in this period, if other teams slip up.

Players rating

Szczesny: 6
Mixed performance. He made some smart stops, including a fingertip save at the end of the first-half, but had a moment of madness, kicking the ball straight at Loic Remy's head.

Sagna: 7
Solid display.

Mertesacker: 8
Stayed strong against Newcastle's strikers. He has been the most accurate passer among the Premier League regular defender this season with a 92% passing success rate (97% in this game).

Koscielny: 7

Along with Mertesacker, kept Newcastle strikers quiet. 

Gibbs: 6
Struggled to contain Debuchy on the left flank. Replace in the 70th minute. We didn't notice at the time, but apparently he suffered a calf strain.

Flamini: 7
Protected the back four very well. Moved to the left-back after Gibbs' withdrawal.

Wilshere: 7
Whoscored.com's Man of the Match, but he looked to us a little too easy to get muscled off the ball. Cleared Debuchy's headed effort off the line. Set up a goal-scoring chance by prodding Walcott clear behind the defence only for Giroud to mess it up.

Cazorla: 6

Struggled for space and time as Newcastle players, especially Tiote, pressed him so hard. He must have missed massively the presence of Ozil, who usually takes on two or three defenders. Some question the ref's decision to give Arsenal a free-kick which led to the goal, but it is more questionable why Tiote went unpunished after so many fouls on Santi.

Rosicky: 7

Showed his desire and determination. Always tried to go forward.

Walcott: 6
Sub-par performance, although he contributed to Giroud's goal via a superb delivery.

Giroud: 6
Scored the only goal of the game by guiding Theo's free-kick home with a delicate header. His first goal in over a month should release him from pressure. His lack of aggression may stem from his fear of getting injured. We need another striker to take the burden off him so that he can play without handbrake. (He was reported to have stated that Arsenal do not need another striker as they have Theo and Poldi, who both can play up front). 


Arteta: 6
70th minute substitute for Gibbs. Helped to shore up the defence.

Jenkinson: 5
Replaced Walcott in the 80th minute to see out a win. It was mystery to us why he didn't take a throw in quickly towards awaiting Bentner to attack the empty Newcastle box before all the defenders, including the goalkeeper, got back. Probably he was too concentrated on wasting time to run down the clock and was not aware of the chance.

Bendtner: 6
86th-minute substitute for Giroud. 

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