Arsenal host Newcastle on Monday with a chance to go within a point of 3rd. The weekend’s fixtures, barring the Chelsea win, have been kind to the Gunners and now it’s up to them to make the most of it. They haven’t always taken their opportunities in the recent past so the doubts are still there in many Gooner minds for sure. But there also seems to be a new-found belief that has strengthened with every remarkable win.
Speaking of wins, it’s interesting to note that Arsenal have achieved them in very different styles. Against Spurs, the Gunners completely dominated the game but conceded twice before producing that rampaging comeback. At Anfield, it’s fair to say, Arsenal were outplayed for large parts of the game but still hung in there and stole a win with a couple of moments of real inspiration. Milan saw more of the ball at the Emirates but the Gunners blew them away with an electric tempo in the first half before tiring and fading away in the second. Based on these efforts it’s hard to predict which Arsenal side will turn up but one must hope it’s energetic and purposeful one.
Speaking about the intensity his players have found in recent games Arsene said,
We can play at a pace that, at the moment, maybe nobody else can sustain.
That could very well be the key against a determined, well-organized, tenacious, and opportunistic Newcastle side which has some recent history with the Gunners. Arsenal have seen Red in their last three meetings with the Toon which include a home loss and two draws of distinctly different varieties. Come to think of it, that actually means Arsene Wenger hasn’t beaten Alan Pardew in the League since Newcastle’s promotion last season. Clearly, this game cannot be taken lightly as the results haven’t been complete flukes.
A Monday night fixture did allow a couple of extra days of rest for the players. Some of those with niggles are also back (Arteta, Ramsey, Benayoun) while Santos is ready to return after his recuperation. That means Arsene can pick a strong side for this game and there can be no excuses for tardiness.
The back four were sensational against Milan and should not be changed. In the middle Arteta should take his place alongside Song and the reborn Rosicky. Van Persie will lead the line and the side. Arsene’s biggest decision is the choice of the wide players.
Does he go for two quick and direct wingers or will he sustain the recently renewed policy of playing a more technically adept midfielder on the flank? It’s a tough one.
Normally I’d go for the balance offered by a player who is more comfortable on the ball and can come inside to drift between the lines. It leads to better angles, better ball retention and movement, extra protection to the full-back, more control, and more intricate combination play. But Benayoun hasn’t really adapted to that role so playing him there doesn’t offer as many benefits. Plus it reduces the opportunities to go in behind as some pace is lost.
On the other hand, Gervinho has been inconsistent to say the least while Oxlade-Chamberlain is still developing and prone to making rookie mistakes.
In the end Arsene has to consider how Newcastle play and which qualities are more likely to be beneficial against them. I’d go with the following line-up,
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Having said that, I won’t be surprised if Arsene goes for Gervinho on the left or even Benayoun. Le Boss might even make the unpopular choice of starting Ramsey in the middle and shunting Rosicky to the left. I believe any side he picks can do the job if they can produce and maintain the tempo that we have seen in the last few home games.
Of course, a lot of that also depends on Newcastle’s approach. In Tiote and Cabaye, the Toon have combative and competent midfielders who can not only frustrate the Gunners but also pass the ball well enough to create chances for their attackers.
It will be interesting to see if Pardew picks two strikers for this game. That could give Arsenal greater space in the midfield but their forward pair does have the ability to test Arsenal’s back four. Ba in particular, but even Cisse based on recent evidence, has shown the ability to pounce on half-chances and to make the most of the space afforded to him.
Pushing both the full-backs up against two striker outfits has caused Arsenal some problems in recent games. And while the Gunners would back themselves to make another comeback, it would be prudent to play a tight game defensively.
Newcastle have conceded 24 goals in their 13 away games this season at nearly 2 goals per game. But those numbers are inflated by the 10 they’ve shipped on their last two visits to London. You could say it bodes well for the Gunners or you could believe they’re usually a tough team to score against. I’m more inclined to go with the latter thought. It won’t be easy to crack them open.
It’d be easy to say the Gunners should get more bodies into their box. But often it doesn’t work out when the opponents are on top of their defensive game. I strongly believe Arsenal’s ability to enter the Newcastle penalty box in numbers will define the nature and result of this fixture. Obviously, moving the ball at speed, pressing up the pitch, runs of the wide players, the midfielders’ influence on the game, and the contribution of the full-backs will all count towards the attacking impetus that the hosts can build.
Equally, Newcastle’s ability to retain their shape, to keep the ball in front of them, to slow down the forward passes by cutting the angles, and to break at speed will also have an impact on the quality of football that Arsenal can produce.
Howard Webb is the ref and that could mean a relatively ugly first half is in the offing. He’s the kind of official who lets certain fouls go unpunished early on before getting stricter as the game progresses. Such an approach sometimes makes it hard for sides to score early goals as play is broken up by opponents taking advantage of the ref’s leniency. But I also believe it doesn’t make a big enough impact to make it a valid excuse for a poor performance.
In defence, to state the obvious, Vermaelen and Koscielny will again have to perform at their best. The Frenchman, in particular, has had some struggles in recent games against physically strong strikers. He will have to hold his ground against an imposing guy like Dembe Ba.
This is a game where both young, upcoming goalkeepers could also have a say and as always set-pieces can make a difference.
When you put it all together though, there is little reason to believe this game will hold any major surprises. The side that can impose its tactical will on the game will get the result it deserves.Follow @goonerdesi