Sunday, January 3, 2016

Arsenal finish festive football with a whimper, but a win

The game between Arsenal and Newcastle United at the Emirates on Saturday won’t live long in the memory. The Gunners really struggled to find any rhythm during the game and couldn’t find their way through an improved Newcastle team. But somehow Arsene Wenger’s team scraped a 1-0 victory.
In some ways, it was a very concerning performance as Arsenal hardly looked a like a table-topping team for the majority of the match, and given where Newcastle are in the table, the hosts should have put the visitors away with much greater ease. But, given the match came at the end of the busy festive period, and Arsenal are still missing a number of key players, it was just good to get the win and move on.
It means that Arsenal have taken nine points from a possible 12 from the Christmas matches, which is a decent return, and one which has taken them to the top of the league. More performances such as the one against Newcastle won’t keep Arsenal there, but the desire and ability to somehow get the win when playing badly will give the Gunners a great chance of staying atop the Premier League. This time of the year in English football is often just about getting through the games, regardless of performance. With a bit more time until the next league game, Arsenal will be able to fine-tune aspects of their game, rest players and possibly get one or two back from injury to bulk out a depleted squad. There’s also the possibility of a signing (or two, although that might be somewhat optimistic!) arriving with the January window open to further boost the squad before the next league game at Liverpool on 13th January.
Saturday’s win came courtesy of a Laurent Koscielny goal, with the centre-back showing that he still has a very usual knack of scoring important goals for the Gunners. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, and in many senses was a bit un-Arsenal like in how it came about, but it was welcomed gladly by the Emirates faithful. It came inside the last twenty minutes of the game and came after Arsenal had barely tested visiting goalkeeper Rob Elliot during the match. Mesut Ozil’s corner was headed up in the air before Olivier Giroud fought to get his head to the ball, putting it towards the back post where Laurent Koscielny had snuck in to guide the ball into the net. He shinned it a bit, but it went in.
The goal did typify the desire in the team to make things happen for them in the title race. With Newcastle struggling in the bottom half of the league, the desire wasn’t quite there to seize an opportunity. After rarely making it into the box in the second half, Arsenal weren’t going to miss the chance when it came, so it was good to see Giroud do well to get above the defence to win to the header that provided the assist for Koscielny, who himself had read the play well and gambled on a chance falling his way in front of the goalkeeper.
After taking the lead, and with Newcastle committing more players forward, Arsenal created more chances and should have killed the game off to avoid a stressful ending to the game. Joel Campbell was lively following his introduction and Mesut Ozil went very close with a clever reverse shot that left the goalkeeper stranded. The best chance fell to Aaron Ramsey, who had jinked his way past the covering defenders, but with Campbell and Hector Bellerin charging up in support awaiting the pass to tap in the clinching goal, Ramsey went for the top corner himself and missed.
Having been on the receiving end of a similar tap-in against Aston Villa, it was a slight surprise to see Ramsey shoot. Had he finished it off, fair enough, but take a look up next time Aaron!
The victory owed an awful lot to another commanding performance from Petr Cech. The big goalkeeper was an immense presence for the Gunners with a few crucial saves, with the one-on-one block to deny Wijnaldum being the stand-out stop. Cech’s importance to Arsenal can’t be overstated at the moment. It feels like we were kidding ourselves as fans when thinking that Szczesny or Ospina could be the Arsenal number one on a long term basis. Both of those keepers have their merits and their strengths, but they can’t compete with Cech’s all round excellence. It’s incredibly reassuring for the defenders, and the fans in the stands, to have such a consistent performer as the last line of defence. I’m still baffled that Chelsea sanctioned the deal to let him leave as he could be the difference between a title win and being another glorious failure.
With Cech playing so well, even when Arsenal aren’t at their best, they are still able to keep clean sheets and then just need one moment of quality or good fortunate going forward to win the game. If the performances improve, which they should do now we’re out of the hectic Christmas period, and Cech continues his superb form, there is real hope for 2016 for Arsenal. Despite a few scratchy showings, Arsenal have ended the Christmas period with a two point lead in the league. There is plenty of work to do, but the foundations have been laid for a proper title tilt.