Saturday, August 29, 2015

Arsenal stutter but succeed in the North East

Before the match, after drawing a blank in two of the first three Premier League games, Arsenal fans would surely have taken a 1-0 win against Newcastle United through a scrappy own goal. Even considering that Newcastle played with ten men for the majority of the match, I’m still very happy to take that 1-0 win through an own goal, especially after seeing the results for Chelsea and Liverpool later in the day.
Arsenal had to make changes to the front line after only scoring twice in the first three league games, and even though Olivier Giroud hasn’t played too badly, it seemed right to give Theo Walcott an opportunity up front. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain starting on the right and Alexis Sanchez on the left, there was plenty of pace for Arsenal to use on the counter-attack. It seemed like an ideal plan for an away game at a stadium where fans demand a lot from the home team, particularly in showing adventure and looking to attack. There were initial glimpses that this would work well as an early burst down the right from Oxlade-Chamberlain caused the hosts problems.
But, the pace in the front-line for the counter-attack suddenly wasn’t quite the right attacking options for Arsene Wenger to have on the field. 16 minutes into the game Aleksandar Mitrovic, following the general tone of Newcastle’s attempts to rough Arsenal up a bit, raked his studs down the front of Francis Coquelin’s shin and received a straight red card from referee Andre Mariner. It incensed the home fans as, on first sight, it looked quite innocuous, however second viewing showed it to be a nasty challenge.
Going down to ten men meant Newcastle sat back and were mainly focussed on defending. Without much space in behind the back four, Theo Walcott’s threat was nullified, and without Olivier Giroud to challenge aerially for the ball, Arsenal were reluctant to mix things up and put crosses into the box. The absence of Mesut Ozil with a knee injury also limited Arsenal’s chances to pick the lock through Newcastle’s deep defence.
Despite Newcastle’s more defensive focus, Theo Walcott still had a golden opportunity to open the scoring before half time. Alexis Sanchez’s low shot was pushed out by Tim Krul and with the goalkeeper on the ground, Walcott could only flick the ball over the bar. That chance also came after Walcott was earlier denied by Krul coming out to block a shot following Hector Bellerin’s clever pass.
The Mitrovic red card came moments after Andre Mariner failed to stop the clear foul by Florient Thauvin on Hector Bellerin in the Newcastle box. When the game was still open before Newcastle lost a man, Bellerin got forward well and looked to be combining well with Oxlade-Chamberlain.
After the break, the pattern of play was much the same to the first, with Arsenal mostly having possession between the half-way line and the edge of the Newcastle penalty area. Just as Arsenal looked to be in need of a change, Laurent Koscielny purposely strode out of defence and fed Santi Cazorla, whose shot was blocked. Aaron Ramsey followed up to sting the palms of Tim Krul, but from the third shot in the sequence, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain found the bottom corner via the shin of Fabricio Coloccini. The shot was going wide, so as against Crystal Palace, Arsenal took the lead through an own goal.
The game didn’t quite open up as expected as Newcastle struggled to get near Arsenal’s penalty area in trying to equalise. Given how busy Petr Cech was against Liverpool on Monday night to preserve his clean sheet, this shutout could be one of the easiest he’s ever picked up in the Premier League. Arsenal couldn’t add the cushion of a second goal with Olivier Giroud missing a couple of chances after coming off the bench and Tim Krul making some decent saves. The 1-0 lead never really looked threatened though, giving the Gunners the three points.
It was difficult to have a definite judgment on if Arsenal’s fluency has improved as the game changed so dramatically after the red card. The Gunners still struggle to find their way through teams who concentrate solely on defending, which Newcastle did well for the most part. Had Arsenal been given the penalty early in the match and scored, it could have been a much more entertaining game as the hosts would have had to attack more and Arsenal would have been dangerous with the pace on the break. As it was, Arsenal huffed and puffed, but found a way to win.
The biggest talking point from an Arsenal point-of-view, once again, is the hope of signing a new striker. It would be great to sign one before the deadline on Tuesday, but there are limitations as to who is available in the transfer market and if those available would actually be an improvement on either Giroud, Walcott or Danny Welbeck, who is due back after the international break. You only have to look at the top clubs in Europe, whom this mysterious world-class striker would in theory come from, and see that they haven’t been active in buying or selling strikers during the summer. Chelsea and Tottenham are throwing money at John Stones and Saido Berahino and so far have failed, highlighting how difficult it is to just go out and buy who you want.
I have no doubt that Arsene Wenger is looking, and that if the opportunity to make a world class signing on deadline day, like Ozil two years ago, then he’ll do it without hesitating. Unfortunately, I doubt that opportunity will become available.
Even if a new striker doesn’t come in, I’m certain Arsenal will discover their attacking mojo sooner rather than later, there are too many good players in those positions for that not to happen. In the meantime, Arsenal just have to accrue points in any way possible. It wasn’t overly pretty at St James’ Park, but it was three points.