Sunday, December 14, 2014

Patched-up Gunners clinically dispatch Newcastle

After the midweek win against Galatasaray, I wrote that the healing process for this Arsenal team will take a long time following the Stoke debacle. Because of the points that Arsenal have dropped this season for varying stupid reasons, that is still the case, but the excellent response to the despair at the Britannia continued with a thumping 4-1 victory over Newcastle.
Without other defensive and midfield options, Arsene Wenger had to throw Mathieu Debuchy, only just back from injury himself, into the centre of defence, and his attitude and application playing in an unfamiliar position typified the intensity and commitment that the whole team showed on Saturday. Too often this season, it has felt like Alexis Sanchez has been the only man Arsenal could rely on to deliver at key moments in games, but everyone pulled their weight on Saturday. There wasn’t a weak link in the team.
Newcastle came to the Emirates off the back of a great win against Chelsea the previous week, but weren’t allowed to settle against a determined Gunners team. With the front three refreshed after a rest against Galatasaray, Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck applied pressure from the front effectively. This pressure also set the tone for the rest of the team, and that led to the opening goal. Debuchy pushed up and won a great defensive header on the half way line before the next pass forward was sharply intercepted by Hector Bellerin. Giroud then swept the ball out wide to Alexis, charged into the box and thundered the resulting cross into the box with a cracking header. After his headed miss against Stoke when the score was only 1-0, Giroud will have felt he had a point to prove, and he emphatically did it with that header.
Scoring an early goal was important for Arsenal as it denied Newcastle the opportunity to only play on the counter-attack, as they did effectively against Chelsea. They were also restricted because Alan Pardew’s wide players were marshalled well by the Arsenal full-backs. Yoan Gouffran got barely anything out of Kieran Gibbs, who looked much sharper than he did at Stoke, while Sammy Ameobi was never going to beat Hector Bellerin for pace. With his languid style, Ameobi is a quick player, but he was completely nullified as a threat by the impressive Bellerin.
Having been out injured and seen Emiliano Martinez claim three clean sheets, Wojciech Szczesny offered a reminder of his abilities in the first half as Newcastle’s best opportunity came from a free-kick into the box. The Pole made a great diving save, and while Cisse should have scored with Szczesny on the floor, it was a fantastic double stop from the keeper.
The 1-0 lead at half time was merited, but this season, that was nowhere near a big enough lead to be comfortable. As with the first half, Arsenal started the second period with a lot of intent. The second goal arrived within the first ten minutes of the second half as Santi Cazorla produced a moment of magic. He controlled Alexis’ inside pass, hurdled the challenge of Coloccini when he could have gone down for a penalty, and without looking, he chipped a perfect finish into the far corner past the advancing goalkeeper.
Much like the rest of the team, Santi Cazorla has had a varied season. But the Spaniard is one of thoe players that has a great influence on the team, and when he plays well, Arsenal play well. Cazorla was also helped on Saturday by a strong central midfield performance behind him as Mathieu Flamini was disciplined while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided the drive from the centre of the pitch.
The third goal quickly followed the second as Hector Bellerin played a good ball across the box for Olivier Giroud to deftly flick in at the near post. Giroud does have his weaknesses, and when he has a bad game it looks worse than other players’ off days, but he’s undoubtedly been missed this season. With the quicker players like Welbeck and Alexis around him, Giroud can be an effective focal point and a clinical finisher. He only had two chances on Saturday, and buried both of them in different and effective ways.
The only downside to the performance on Saturday was the marking at Jack Colback’s free-kick, which was headed in by Perez. Despite his excellent performance, it was a reminder of Hector Bellerin’s inexperience, as Perez should have been picked up by the Spaniard. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the stadium whose first thought on that goal going in was ‘Anderlecht’. The tense shift in atmosphere from conceding the one goal was very noticeable, but Arsenal didn’t give Newcastle another clear opening and saw the game out well.
The gloss was added to the victory by Cazorla with a delicate penalty following a foul on Danny Welbeck. It was another sign of the confidence returning to the team, with Cazorla at the heart of the majority of Arsenal’s best moments in the game.
The win did at least mean that some bizarre decision making from referee Lee Mason didn’t cost the Gunners any points. The strangest of those decisions came when he disallowed Danny Welbeck’s well-taken goal for a supposed foul. After enduring Anthony Taylor’s efforts at Stoke last weekend, it was frustrating to have another dodgy refereeing performance in the next league game. With the game played at a quick pace at the top level, it is tough for referees to have to make split second decisions, but I think there is a decline in the standard of refereeing in England, and it’s something the FA have to improve on.
The game finished with Arsene Wenger’s name being sung by fans at the Emirates. Even if there are fans who still want the Frenchman to leave his role as the manager, it felt like a show of unity and respect towards Wenger in light of the abuse he received at Stoke. There are still concerns about injuries, the defence etc, but Saturday was a reminder that when they are in the groove, Arsene Wenger teams can still attack and score beautiful goals unlike any others.