Sunday, March 22, 2015

Winning momentum continues as Arsenal scrape past Newcastle

Arsenal continued their excellent run of results in the league with a 2-1 victory at St. James’ Park against Newcastle United, but Arsene Wenger’s team made it incredibly difficult for themselves. In a lively first half, some sharper play around the box should have resulted in more than the two goals they scored, and then a pretty shoddy second half performance followed. The hosts couldn’t take advantage, and the Gunners were able to keep up the heat on those around them near the top of the table.

Arsene Wenger made a few changes to freshen up the team after the midweek exertions in Monaco, with Calum Chambers, Gabriel and Aaron Ramsey coming in. It meant there was no place for Mesut Ozil, who was missing through injury. Given how much has been written and said about the German’s contribution to the team, I thought it was telling how it looked like the Gunners missed his control and guile in the centre of the pitch against Newcastle.
Had Ozil been there, I suspect Arsenal would have been able to capitalise further on a lacklustre home defence, who completely lost the plot for 15 minutes in the first half. Ozil might have offered more control as Arsenal struggled to get a foothold in the game in the second half, which would have relieved the pressure. But, Arsenal still had enough in the tank to get the job done without the German.

The Gunners were on top for the majority of the first half and looked a constant threat to the makeshift Newcastle defence. Even though he didn’t score, Alexis Sanchez was a constant menace in the first half, while Aaron Ramsey made regular bursts into the box, occasionally getting the in the way of others, such was his eagerness to try and create something for the team. It fell to Olivier Giroud to make the telling contributions to give Arsenal a deserved half-time lead.

The first almost literally fell to the Frenchman, as he instinctively flicked the ball into the net with his knee following Danny Welbeck’s header on goal. While it’s easy to say those sorts of things just go for you when you’re in form, it was good anticipation from Giroud, and if it was possible to guide a finish into the net with your knee, Giroud gave a lesson in it for the opening goal.

Newcastle seemed to hit the panic button, and Arsenal were all over them soon after the first goal. Welbeck could have scored from a cross from Alexis, while Santi Cazorla almost worked an opening with Tim Krul out of his goal. Fortunately, Arsenal made use of their dominance in the game with a second goal.

Cazorla’s corner was well headed in by Giroud, as the Frenchman fought off Mike Williamson to direct an excellent header into the bottom corner. The defence will question why Giroud was allowed to head in without having to jump for the ball, but from an attacking perspective, it was excellent work from Giroud, and maintained his own superb scoring run. While he has his faults, and is far from the perfect striker, Giroud is a great example of a player making the most of his ability, and there’s no doubting that since returning from injury, he’s provided Arsenal with a real focal point up front. He’s linked the play well with others, and been a big presence leading the line to score goals. He allows Arsenal to mix-it up when needed, and has been a big part of the recent winning run.

At half-time, such was Arsenal’s dominance, I was expecting Giroud to get plenty of opportunities to get his first Arsenal hat-trick. Those chances never really materialised as the hosts came out re-energised in the second half. Newcastle harried Arsenal and were more direct in their play. Sissoko scored early in the half, meaning a nervy 40 minutes followed. The Gunners never really looked comfortable, and had their goalkeeper to thank for a couple of excellent saves. Gabriel and Koscielny were called upon too often to make some important tackles and interceptions as Arsenal struggled to string many passes together.

The sting was taken out of the game in injury time as the expected charge from Newcastle at the end didn’t quite happen, but it was a huge relief to hear the final whistle. After an away game in Europe, another away game in the Premier League is tough. Arsenal may not have been great at St. James’ Park, but they’re in a winning habit, and they’re finding ways to win games they were drawing earlier in the season. It wasn’t enjoyable at times, but it was effective, and highlighted the improvements this squad have made over the course of the season. It’s probably too late for title challenge, but all the Gunners can do is keep winning games and see where that lands them at the end of the season.