With Newcastle United in such dire straits mired in the relegation zone, Toon boss Steve McClaren was never going to send out his team playing expansive football away from home.
As expected, Newcastle played solidly and packed the midfield and final third, lying in wait when the Gunners possession broke down to hit them on the counter attack.
These tactics would maybe have worked in previous seasons, but the mettle of Arsene Wenger’s side is not to be doubted this campaign as they dealt with not only a staunch Magpies resistance, but also their own stuttering form to record a win that sees them stay top and stretch their lead over Leicester City by two points.
The team news before kick off was that Mathieu Flamini was fit and available again, so central midfield debutant Calum Chambers made way for the French stalwart. Joel Campbell, who was rested in the previous game, was thought to be a certainty to reclaim his spot on the right hand side of midfield but it was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who was once more given an opportunity to hold down a starting slot.
For the Magpies, their usual midfield engine of Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita was split, with Anita declared injured. Chiek Tiote – no stranger to a tasty battle – was drafted in. Ayoze Perez and Alexander Mitrovic were the two prongs of attack and after the first fifteen minutes on a sodden Emirates pitch, it was evident that McClaren had a gameplan.
The Gunners started well, with Hector Bellerin providing the majority of play as he scampered down the right on more than one occasion. Nothing came of his deliveries into the box and mystifyingly, it appeared as if the Gunners took their hand from the jugular of the Magpies.
From there until the half time whistle, it seemed as if there would be only one team who would break the deadlock. Newcastle threatened Petr Cech’s goal through Sissokho, Mitrovic and Perez, with Wijnaldum’s effort being the nearest to piercing Cech’s resistance. The giant shot-stopper was more than equal to what the Magpies could muster and repelled their efforts with all the asssuredness Gooners have begun to expect from the becapped Czech.
Gooners were becoming restless however. Too many times we have seen this type of display, where our team who are littered with invention, creativity and skills that would garner a place in any team in the world, fail to generate a shot on target and slowly let our opponents build up enough steam which sees them eventually take the points. Newcastle’s attack were winning headers in our box and it seemed that Mertesacker and Koscielny were having an off-day. They seemingly offered no threat to the balls in the air that Newcastle were pinging into our penalty area.
Thankfully, Cech’s clean sheet remained intact until referee Anthony Taylor intervened with the half-time whistle.
No shots on target, but something to grasp onto for the suffering Gooners in the stands – they still had parity in the scoreline. The Magpies had created some good chances but it still wasn’t enough to take the initiative.
The second half began as it ended, with Newcastle on top. They kept the script from which their team read so effectively in the first forty five minutes, but Arsenal were now creating chances too. Wijnaldum should have given his side the lead though, but Cech again provided the last line of defence so well.
Then, for the next twenty minutes or so, they traded chances. None were particularly gilt-edged, but Giroud couldn’t get enough on a header and the Magpies continued to play well on the counter.
Much debate is ongoing regarding the progress of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and this was the second game in succession that he has been given a start on the right, but in terms of productivity, he again had an empty basket at the checkout. No self-respecting supporter could have foreseen that Gooners would be crying out for Joel Campbell in place of the England starlet? Chamberlain continues to play in fits and bursts, like a faulty firework he flares into life when you least expect it, but in order to fully utilise what bountiful gifts he possesses, he needs to gain consistency and make better decisions when he finds himself in the fantastic positions he gets into.
Talking of Joel Campbell, he swapped places with Chamberlain on the sixty-ninth minute and one minute later, the deadlock was broken.
A corner was swung in and Olivier Giroud eventually managed to get his head onto the ball and direct it into the path of the lurking Laurent Koscielny. The defender showed more poise and finishing prowess than any player on the pitch as he toe-poked into the net. Ayoze Perez could have given Koscielny a tougher time but the Spaniard was too busy ball-watching.
1-0 to The Arsenal indeed. Yet again, it was Koscielny who made the difference when it seems that the game was mapped toward dropped points. So many times during Koscielny’s Arsenal career, he has stepped forward and grabbed a goal whenever the stakes couldn’t be higher. Koscielny delivers in big games. Koscielny thrives under pressure and Gooners have him to thank for a victory which sees them earn daylight at the top of the league.
Newcastle failed to materialise any more real resistance and it was the Gunners who looked more likely to extend their lead. A prime example was an Aaron Ramsey chance that was created by the Welshman himself. He expertly moved himself and the ball past two defenders and found himself in the box with only goalkeeper Rob Elliot to beat. Ramsey opted for the curled finish but the ball sailed wide. If it had rippled the net it would have been a contender for goal of the season so far, but it signalled that Ramsey is back on form and he grafted like no other. Before the chances for Ramsey we saw Giroud subbed off in place of Calum Chambers, and his introduction was the moment Arsene Wenger pulled up the handbrake and signalled his intention that he was happy with the scoreline. A defender for a striker is not exactly full of attacking intent!
Anthony Taylor blew the final whistle and it meant that Arsenal defeated a spirited Newcastle United side, which could be vital before trips to Anfield and the Brittania Stadium arrive after the F.A Cup defence begins next weekend.
Experts the world over agree that when a side is able to earn victory despite being unable to play in top gear, that it is a marker for potential glory. Arsene Wenger will be more than aware that his side failed to click and dangerman Mesut Ozil was well shackled, but the battling qualities from his men were the real facets we should choose to focus on. When Plan A is foiled, it is good to know that our team can roll up their sleeves and muck in with their teammates to work for the win.
Three points, clean sheet and still top of the league. We could focus on the negatives in our stuttering attack and our defence who were blunt, but when your team is sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League, when will you be happy if you can’t be right now?