The last time that Arsenal played Newcastle may have only been a narrow 2-1 win, thanks only to a last-gasp scramble of a goal at that, but the crucial victory from last March should act as a template for the Gunners in today’s late kick-off at the Emirates. In terms of the spirit and essence of the win, Arsène Wenger’s men had plenty to be proud of, and a similar performance would go far to ensuring a fourth consecutive league win.
While conceding the first goal was not ideal (is it ever?) the encouragement was in the way Arsenal rallied to reply instantly, as well as the style in which the goal was scored. It was poor to concede – the midfield offered little cover as Hatem Ben Arfa was afforded the space in which to rifle past Wojciech Szczesny at the near post – but what was impressive was how Arsenal regrouped to level it from the kick-off. They’d barely seemed to bat an eyelid by going behind, and responded perfectly.
It was a superb goal too, while not particularly a spectacular strike. The move was intense, far removed from the ‘tippy-tappy’ football associated with Arsenal these days, but much more like the football Arsène Wenger advertises. The move was fast-paced and fluid, with Sagna, Rosicky and Walcott combining well down the right in a neat triangle to eventually find Van Persie, who swiftly turned and finished with aplomb.
That kind of move is what Arsène Wenger will be hoping for as evidence that the side has gelled more since the 1-0 win over Wigan last weekend. Against Reading in the 5-2, the fluid attacking football on show was promising and evidence of a growing cohesion within the team, while the Wigan game showed a steely determination and a miserly defence.
Of course the objective will be to put the two together against Newcastle, and there’s no evidence suggesting that the Gunners can’t. Fitness problems seem to be evaporating, with only Diaby, Santos and Fabianski on the sidelines, and Wenger free to pick from mostly his strongest squad.
Newcastle’s concession of four goals to Man United at Old Trafford will give Arsenal encouragement that a similar attacking showing can be achieved by the home side, and although the Magpies put three past the Red Devils, Arsenal’s defence has been less leaky than Ferguson’s side. United have let in 1.47 goals per league game, while Arsenal have allowed 1 per league game, conceding 18 times in 18 games.
Something else that Arsenal can exploit is the extra rest time that they’ve had thanks to the postponement of their home game against West Ham. While Newcastle were toiling at Old Trafford, the Gunners had a chance to put their feet up and put in some extra preparation. The busy Christmas period often leaves Arsenal ‘jaded’, so an additional respite should improve the fitness and sharpness of all of Wenger’s men.
The big question is whether Wenger plumps for Theo Walcott up-front again or brings Olivier Giroud back in, with the French striker returning from injury. Walcott was starved of service against Wigan, and with Arsenal traditionally the dominant side at the Emirates, he’d probably see more of the ball than at the DW Stadium.
However, the majority of his involvement would probably be in a hold-up role, rather than a livewire poacher as he was against Reading. Javier Hernandez is a similar player to Walcott as a striker, and he did score against Newcastle in a home game which Man United dominated, but a couple of things negate the potential comparison. Firstly, Hernandez is great in the air which afforded him more chances than Walcott would get, and furthermore he was playing off of a striker who shall not be named.
Against a team as formidable as Newcastle, perhaps a better option would be to field Walcott on the right and Giroud up front in order to exploit the relationship between the two. Giroud’s gotten on the end of several Walcott crosses to head home, and against a team as disciplined as Newcastle, it’d be useful for Arsenal to have that dimension to their game ready if their passing betrays them.
The midfield is likely to remain as Cazorla, Arteta and Wilshere, with the trio getting to know each other more and more. With the adventurous Wilshere alongside attack-minded Cazorla, Arteta will have to play a very disciplined role to stop a similar goal to Newcastle’s first last March. However, he should still be able to help start attacks and help Wilshere and Cazorla turn defence into attack with bursts of pace and clever passes.
Overall it’ll be a tricky game but if Arteta can keep the defensive discipline, Cazorla and Wilshere share the creative duties well and Arsenal recreate the chemistry shown last March, they’ve got a great chance of leaping back into the top four with a win.