Wow! What a finish. What a feeling. Arsene, as usual, summed it up with an insightful nugget,
…the pleasure is even more intense when you win in the final minute of the game where you have given everything.
There is something about scoring the winner so, so late in the game. My guess is, and I’m no expert on human psychology, the mind prepares itself for a disappointment even if there is some hope. And as time goes by the hope dwindles like the dying embers of a fire while the disappointment looms like the engulfing cold darkness. Then, when the last gasp of breath – read a rampaging Verminator – rekindles the blazing fire, it’s as if life’s fought back with spirit, strength, sustained belief, and desire … the stuff of champions.
By now you must have read this was the fourth successive game the Gunners had won after conceding the lead – a Premier League record. Inspirational, and hopefully just the beginning of something magical.
However, amidst all the euphoria I must say there is also the point that Arsenal have conceded the opening goal in their last four League outings. It’s a dangerous game. There can be no doubts there are certain weaknesses that need to be addressed.
Looking at Newcastle’s approach, and they deserve credit for that, I got a feeling Alan Pardew sensed some of the defensive issues at Arsenal and came with a positive approach that few bring to the Emirates. While the Toon manager dropped one striker for a midfielder or sorts in Obertan, he did push his players high up the pitch, at least early on.
The first 20 odd minutes of the game were quite intriguing and not at all comfortable for Arsenal. The Magpies were looking to exploit the gap between Arsenal’s midfield and the back four, and were quite successful at that. Dembe Ba was a handful in the air and with his physical presence. Tiote and/or Cabaye were getting in between the lines to join Obertan. Ben Arfa offered some threat on the wing.
Their tactic was simple. Play it long to Ba, win the second ball, attack the back four in numbers. If they could isolate the defenders in a one-v-one they’d have a good chance of scoring given the quality of their attacking players. That’s exactly what happened. On one of the numerous occasions when they won the second ball, Arsenal had to defend against three players in front of the defence. This sucked the full-backs narrow and opened up an easy pass towards Ben Arfa. The Frenchman was skillful enough to create a yard for himself and buried it at the near post. Szczesny should probably have done better and the manager might ask Gibbs why he didn’t take the winger down the line, but defending open spaces against tricky players running with the ball is always difficult.
At the other end, Arsenal were getting some joy against Newcastle’s relatively high line. Walcott saw a lot of space and was a harassing Santon consistently. Pardew either made the mistake of not doubling up on him or just couldn’t find the balance between attack and defence. From the second minute on, when Theo played a delightful cross between the defence and the Keeper, the speedy winger looked like he was enjoying himself while making an impact on the game.
Van Persie, uncharacteristically it must be said, somehow managed to completely miss that cross. Minutes later another delightful chip from Song found the De Kapitein in the box but the ball, in his attempt to chest, fell onto his knee and ran away from him.
At the other end, Newcastle were pressing hard after kicking it long and it was building some pressure. Arsenal’s only outlet seemed to be on the Right but the visitors had it relatively well covered.
Even then, quick passing from Walcott, Sagna, and Rosicky put Theo into some space on the Right. His early cross came to Van Persie who made up for his earlier misses with a delightful trick. First he moved his body towards the ball to suck the defender that way, and then allowed the ball to roll past him to leave Williamson on the floor. The placement of his finish too was superb as it gave Krul no chance.
The time between the two goals was recorded at 40 seconds. It must have dented the visitors’ confidence as, for the remainder of the first half, Arsenal slowly but surely got a better grip on the game and pinned Newcastle back. The Gunners now saw a lot of the ball but the creative threat was limited to crosses from the Right and a couple of free-kicks.
Arsenal’s best chance of the remaining period fell to Theo from a corner but his attempt was scuffed and easily cleared. Newcastle didn’t provide any real tests to Szczesny either as they weren’t able to sustain the “pushing up, dropping deep” routine.
At half-time I took a quick peek at the stats on EPL Index. Predictably, as everything for Arsenal came down the Right, Theo had 34 touches to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s 13 while Sagna clocked 51 to Gibbs’ 25.
This is an area where the Gunners need to improve i.e. use both flanks effectively, but it’s a complex discussion and deserves its own post.
Arsenal’s dominance continued in the second period. Newcastle were now not able to get as many bodies forward to attack the second ball by virtue of having to defend really deep. The visitors did have a number of opportunities to counter-attack but failed to find the final pass. Obertan was arguably their most wasteful player and helped out the Arsenal defence with his poor choices and touches. But in fairness, the others weren’t playing an extraordinary game either.
The Gunners, for their part, created a number of quality chances all through the half. Rosicky forced a save with a bullet header from a sizzling Walcott cross (a couple of weeks ago some people would have laughed at the thought of such an event occuring), the Ox fired a blistering volley over from outside the box, Arteta’s goal-bound shot from the edge of the box was then deflected away for a corner, Van Persie then got in front of the centre back but could only direct his Right-footed shot straight at Krul, and so on.
Midway through the half the possession for that period read 75-25 for Arsenal. In the 67th minute Rosicky missed a glorious chance after his tenacious tackling and eagerness to be the first to the ball had put Theo in a great position to cut-back. In the 79th minute Gibbs pounced on a dawdling Simpson near the Left goal-line. His cut-back came to RvP who again missed a good chance, this time with his Right.
The game was becoming edgy and frustrating. There were some physical challenges in the centre of the park and that suited Newcastle just fine.
In the 83rd minute. Gervinho missed a gilt-edge chance at the back post as the free-kick somehow reached him. Ramsey’s strike was then deflected back for a corner before Vermaelen forced a big save with a header. In injury time Walcott shot was blocked by Coloccini’s shoulder.
Despite the five added minutes, it felt as if the Gunners had run out of chances when Newcastle managed to push forward and kept the ball in the Arsenal half for a couple of minutes.
In the last minute of time added on though, which probably resulted from Krul’s time wasting in the first place, the script had its final twist. Arsenal broke forward in numbers. Van Persie seemed to have miscontrolled the ball on the centre-line but Song was there to tidy up. He spread it out to Theo who ran at the defender and produced a quality ball under pressure. Imagine the reaction if that cross had been wayward! It was still a tad higher than Van Persie or Ramsey would have wanted but fell invitingly to Vermaelen who’d made his umpteenth burst forward in a purposeful manner.
Newcastle came with some interesting ideas and executed them efficiently for a quarter of the game but in the end Arsenal’s class shone through. On another day it might have been a more comfortable win but this one was special in its own way.
Szczesny: Obviously questions have to be asked about the near post goal but other than that it was a quality effort from the youngster. He was more composed on the ball, his distribution was better – particularly the kicks out to the Right, and his catching was calming.
Sagna: Superb effort on the Right in attack and defence. Newcastle created very little from his side. Had the second most touches and was a constant source for bringing the ball out. Linked beautifully with Theo. Crossing was on and off.
Koscielny: His positioning and decision making was quite good, especially when he had to deal with one-v-ones on the break. Regularly won the ball back, including team high 4 interceptions, and also made the second highest passes enabling better control on the game.
Vermaelen: Made a number of galloping forays into the Newcastle half and justly picked up his reward. Sound positional play and committed duelling. Pretty close to Koscielny in passing quality.
Gibbs: Was exposed early on in the game against Ben Arfa but did well apart from the goal. Was like a panther at the other end, always looking to pounce on the loose ball. Had the best ground duel success rate(5/7) to go with 100 percent tackles success (2/2). But he didn’t have sufficient understanding with AOC and wasn’t as involved as Sagna.
I thought the defenders did well under pressure when Newcastle got bodies forward. After that it was more about control and attacking contributions while snuffing out the few counter-attacks.
Song: He wasn’t as close to the back four as I’d have liked at the start but improved his positioning later in the game. That allowed him to challenge for the second ball more effectively. Curbed his attacking instincts for most parts but still produced a sumptuous ball over the top for RvP and a cross from the by-line late in the game for Vermaelen.
Rosicky: He wasn’t as involved as the other midfielders – completed 34/40 passes as against Song 54/64, or Arteta 83/88; touches 55 compared to 75 (Song) and a whopping 110 (Arteta) – but he brought greater drive and penetration to the side. Of course he played fewer minutes and that made a difference but he should have dropped deeper in the opening 25 min when Newcastle were pushing up, he only attempted 7 (compared to 22 (Song) and 29 (Arteta), even Theo attempted 14 in that period) passes in that period. Good pre-assist for the first goal and an excellent header that tested Krul. Should have done better with his chance midway through the second half. Won 4 of his 5 tackles and 9 of 16 ground duels in a battling performance.
Arteta: Another monstrous effort from the Spaniard. Most touches, most passes, best passing accuracy, second highest number of chances created, 100 percent tackles success (4/4), second highest interceptions (3), and second highest ground duel success rate (7/11). Another super-efficient balancing display that made everyone around him perform better.
The midfield was again caught in a no man’s land for the first quarter of the game but they did much better after the equalizer. Once again Arteta attempted and completed more passes than the best two opposing players combined (Tiote and Cabaye 72/86 between them). Rosicky continues to regain some of his best form with his turns, vision, incision, and scoring attempts.
Theo: MotM in my book. Terrorized the left-back from the word go. Produced a number of quality crosses, created 5 chances including the assist and should also get the pre-assist for the second goal, was a lot more involved than usual with 37 attempted passes (29 completed). Could probably have done better with his shooting.
RvP: An off day by his standards. Intelligent and clinical for the goal but missed a number of chances as well. Work rate was top notch as ever and also made defensive contributions by getting his head to some set-piece deliveries.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Wasn’t able to influence the game for large parts. Had a good run or two and a couple of shots that went off target but not much more. Is in a tactically developing phase and will have to learn to integrate himself into the team game. Right now he looks more like an individual who is always looking to either dribble, run, or shoot. Given that Ronaldo and Nani took over two years to reach their peak and considering his age, it’s excusable, but can prove costly in certain games.
The front three were a mixed bag. Theo was sensational. RvP was good by normal standards. AOC was learning on the job. More will be needed in the coming games, especially from the left.
Subs: Gervinho’s game will be remembered for that miss. Ramsey was efficient in the minutes he got on the pitch.
Arsene: Has to find a way to use the left side better and must ensure the defence gets better cover. Kick long -> push bodies forward should not put the back four under so much pressure. Szczesny’s balls out to the Right hinted towards some sort of premeditated or trained tactic against the high line. Future games will show if that is indeed the case. Once again full marks on motivation and commitment.
For those who might have missed it, I want to end with a link to this post from Saturday. It is an attempt to look at this season’s efforts of Spurs and Arsenal in a balanced and objective manner, with some details on Scott Parker’s performances, and a discussion on how the narratives have been so different for both sides.