Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Newcastle 1 Arsenal 2

Although we had to hang on to see out our narrow victory over Newcastle, it was an important away win to tighten our grip on a top-four finish. With Man City comfortably seeing off West Brom earlier in the day and a chance to extend a gap over either Liverpool or Man U or both on the following day, three points were imperative. The Gunners' display was not as convincing as we had expected against a depleted Newcastle side – all the same the result mattered in the race for the Champions League qualification.

Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side that started in a bittersweet 2-0 triumph over Monaco on Tuesday night. Calum Chambers and Gabriel replaced Hector Bellerin and Per Mertesacker, respectively. Aaron Ramsey came in for Mesut Özil, who missed out on the trip to the Tyneside due to a slight illness. Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Flamini, fit-again Tomas Rosicky after illness, and Theo Walcott occupied the subs' bench alongside Bellerin and Mertesacker.

Although some rotation was expected after midweek exertions in Monte Carlo, the team selection raised some eyebrows. We prefer Bellerin over Chambers in the right-back position, but it was understandable that the boss did not want to overuse the young Spaniard, who turned 20 only this week. Gabriel, who travelled to Monaco after recovering from a hamstring injury, had a valuable playing time to give Mertesacker a rest. These two changes made sense, but what baffled us was the absence of Theo Walcott in the starting lineup. The England striker has hardly been overused this season, featuring in the Monaco game only for the last 20 minutes, and also had as good a goal-scoring record against Newcastle as Olivier Giroud's 6 goals in his previous 5 games. Nonetheless, Walcott sat out this game, while both Welbeck and Alexis started again on the wings. As his contract talks stall, the rumours suggesting Theo's exit from Arsenal were fueled after this game.

Going into this game, Arsenal boasted  fine form despite their exit from the Champions League, winning 13 games out of 15 game in all competitions since the New Year's Day. On the other hand, John Carver's side was riddled with a number of injuries on top of their two key players suspended, with only 13 outfield players available for this game. Although St James' Park is a tough place to go, where Chelsea famously suffered their first defeat of what was once dubbed as an invincible season, even Newcastle supporters were expecting Arsenal's emphatic win, say 4-0 to Arsenal.

The first-half showing supported that expectation. Arsenal were seemingly heading for a comfortable afternoon. They were playing some good football at their fluent best, but over-elaborating the final ball at times when a simple shot at goal would do. As it turned out, goals came from simple set-pieces. Giroud continued his fine goal scoring form, hitting the net twice within four minutes in the first-half.

Newcastle started the second half on the front foot. We knew that Arsenal would take their foot off the gas at 2-0 and invite pressure on themselves. We have seen enough 2-1's this season in those situations. Just as we had said that, Sissoko put his 14-yard shot back of the net. It was less than 3 minutes into the second half and now another torturous finale was waiting for us.

As the game wore on, the Gunners started looking leggy. We called for the introduction of fresh legs. Arsene Wenger answered  the call by making double substitutions in Rosicky and Flamini in the 70th minute to replace weary-looking Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez. But still no Walcott. Tired Giroud valiantly battled against Newcastle defenders to hold the ball up, while Welbeck's pace posed a counter-attack threat. Arsenal were holding on thanks to a couple of crucial saves from David Ospina and a resilient defence led by Laurant Koscielny, who took over the captain's armband from Santi Cazorla. When Arsene Wenger made a final change in the 88th minute to replace Welbeck for Bellerin, the Frenchman's intention was clear that Arsenal were all out to defend the narrow lead. Having said that, Bellerin looked dangerous with his pace, going forward. After the final whistle, Arsenal went back to London with a big three points.

After the game asked if he was concerned by the difference between his side's first and second-half displays, Wenger answered "No, not all. We played one game in Manchester, one at home to West Ham, one in Monaco on Tuesday and now here so that's three away games in two weeks. I'm proud of the performance we put in today". We take the same view. Our second-half performance was greatly affected by a fatigue factor. Hopefully, when our players come back from the international break, they will be fresh physically and mentally and re-focus on their Premier League campaign.

On Sunday, Chelsea showed how unpredictable the Premier League could be after their hard-fought 3-2 victory at Hull. Manchester United beat in-form Liverpool at Anfield. With 8 games remaining, the Premier League dynamics could change quickly. Arsenal will welcome fifth-placed Liverpool at the Emirates in a lunch-time kick-off on 4 April, which could be a potentially pivotal match for our pursuit for a Champions League spot.

Players ratings

Ospina: 8
Made a couple of superb saves, which were vital for the three points.

Chambers: 6

Stats-based Whoscored.com was heavily criticised by many Arsenal fans for its rather high rating of 8.48 on Chambers, making him the second best player on the pitch only after Olivier Giroud. The high rating seemed to have been based on his good defensive stats, 6 aerial duels won, 9 tackles, 4 interceptions and 4 clearances made. However, we think he was beaten on our right flank too often and lost possession easily in a dangerous area. 

Gabriel: 6
Mertesacker's passing success rate is usually window-dressed by his back and sideway passes, but at least the German centre-back keeps possession better. In comparison with him, Gabriel's 77.4% passing accuracy looks poor even on the day when the team average was significantly lower than usual at 77%. On the other hand, he made 1 tackle, 7 interceptions and 11 clearances. Perhaps, a higher rating for him across the media 
compared with his central defensive partner comes from these stats.

Koscielny: 6
Made 2 tackles, 4 interceptions and 7 clearances. 

Monreal: 6

The fact that he retained his place in the starting XI despite having played a full 90 minutes against Monaco and with fully-fit Gibbs available shows that now the Spaniard is our first-choice left-back. Made 3 tackles, 5 interceptions and 6 clearances.

Coquelin: 6
He has rarely had a bad game since his return from his loan stint in December, but this was his worst game. His passing left something to be desired and he was outmuscled too often by Newcastle midfielders. But we feel sorry for him as his nose took another battering in this game.

Ramsey: 6
He had a great chance to score when Giroud's flick found his run into the box, but scuffed a shot wide. On another occasion, not only did he inadvertently block Alexis' cross for Giroud, but he also gave away a foul as the cross hit his arm. 

Cazorla: 7

Not his best game, but he still produced one assist and was heavily involved in the first goal by delivering a perfect corner for Welbeck to flick onto Giroud. Replaced by Mathieu Flamini in the 70th minute. Hope he gets a well-deserved rest with the Spanish national team.

Alexis: 6
He hasn't been at his best for some time, but he still worked hard and made 2 key passes. Hopefully, he will come back refreshed from the international duty.

Welbeck: 6
Had 3 shots, one of which was on target. Provided an assist for Giroud's first goal. Made 2 tackles and 5 interceptions. Although his work-rate cannot be faulted, his finishing and touches need to improve. His passing accuracy rate was particularly poor in this game at a measly 66.7%.

Giroud: 8
Continued his fine goal-scoring form by netting two goals in 4 minutes. He did well to hold back his marker to direct his header into the net for his second goal. He was deprived of his chances to complete a hat-trick by Ramsey and a wrong off-side decision.


Flamini: 6
Replaced Cazorla in the 70th minute.

Rosicky: 6
Came off the bench to replace Alexis in the 70th minute.

Bellerin: 6
Came on in the 88th minute to replace Welbeck. 

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