The Gunners edged Newcastle 1-0 on Sunday to lead the Premier League at the halfway stage for the first time since the 2002-03 season. Do you still think that Arsenal is not a serious contender? They have racked up 82 points from their last 38 matches in the league, which is more than the total achieved by Manchester City (80), Chelsea (77) and Manchester United (77).
Of course, holding the top spot after 19 rounds is no guarantee of silverware. Manchester United finished strong to win the league in 2003. And the last time the Gunners won the title, they were in second place at the halfway stage of the 2003-04 season. But it feels good to know that Arsenal now has a really good shot at the title. A year ago, the Gunners were virtually out of contention, trailing the Red Devils by 13 points.
Newcastle had won seven of its nine previous games and could get back in the race for a top 4 finish with a victory at St. James’ Park. The Magpies made only one change from the side that thrashed Stoke 5-1 on Thursday with Tiote returning from suspension to take Ben Arfa’s spot.
Wenger injected some freshness with four changes from the team that defeated West Ham 3-1 on Thursday. Koscielny, Flamini, Wilshere and Rosicky were in the starting lineup while Arteta sat on the bench and Vermaelen, Ramsey and Ozil were not even in the squad. Three of those changes were imposed on the manager since Ramsey picked up a thigh injury against the Hammers, Ozil sustained a shoulder injury and Vermaelen fell sick.
Lacking the cutting edge
It wasn’t a pretty game as both teams stuffed the midfield and pressed high up the pitch to prevent the first forward pass. To some extent, it looked very similar to the matches against Manchester United and Chelsea with very little space and very few clear-cut chances. Arsenal dominated territory but lacked the cutting edge in the final third where the absence of Ramsey and Ozil was heavily felt.
The Gunners mostly threatened with long-range strikes in the first half. Wilshere missed the target in the 23rd minute, Rosicky shot straight at Krul in the 26th and Cazorla’s low curling shot in the 30th lacked power to trouble the Newcastle goalkeeper. Their only half-chance came in the 14th when Cazorla lacked accuracy in his through ball for Giroud.
Hole in our left flank
In hindsight, maybe the Magpies missed their chance to win the match in the first half. The partnership on the left flank between Gibbs and Cazorla was poor and Newcastle rightback Debuchy took advantage of Gibbs’ forays to get in behind the Arsenal defense. Debuchy beat the offside trap in the 12th but could not control a long ball from Cabaye, allowing Szczesny to collect it. The Newcastle defender then ghosted past Gibbs in the 25th but shot wide from a Cabaye free kick.
The Gunners showed more defensive discipline than at the Boleyn Ground, but the ghosts from the loss to Manchester City were not completely gone. Newcastle capitalized on a sloppy pass from Walcott in the 18th to initiate a counterattack. Remy charged down our right flank to make a cross for Sissoko, whose header from a tight angle was stopped by Szczesny. On the stroke of halftime, Wilshere slipped while taking a pass from Koscielny. Cabaye took advantage of the turnover but had his attempt blocked by Koscielny. Sissoko pounced on the loose ball to fire a powerful drive that Szczesny tipped over the bar.
End of Giroud’s goal drought
Giroud did not get any decent service in the first half. It was almost a miracle that he was able to play in the second half. The referee did not blow the whistle when Williamson planted his studs into Giroud’s ankle in the 29th. In any international game, it would have been a yellow card at least. Then Giroud seemed to sprain his ankle while tripping Tiote in the 35th. The France striker got a yellow card for his foul but was able to recover quickly.
After one hour of play, it was hard to see how Arsenal could open the scoring. There was not much fluidity in the team’s passing game and both Walcott and Giroud did not look sharp. Just when I was hoping for the manager to send on Podolski, Giroud got ahead of Williamson and Santon in the 65th to head a free kick from Walcott into the bottom corner.
Giroud can be a frustrating player. The fans love him for his work rate and team spirit. But he also has a tendency to waste good chances. The Gunners hit Newcastle on the fast break in the 51st and Giroud had an opportunity to play Walcott clean through on goal. But the France striker did not immediately spot Walcott on the right wing and gave the Magpies enough time to cut the passing channel. Then Walcott collected a through ball from Wilshere in the 69th but was denied by Krul. The rebound fell into the path of the England winger, whose lob was cleared off the line by Debuchy. Four yards from goal, Giroud volleyed the loose ball wide.
That awful miss paved the way for a nervy finish. The question was: would Arsenal be able to protect its slim lead or would it concede a late equalizer like in the 1-1 draw with Everton? Szczesny nearly gifted the Magpies a goal in the 81st. The Poland goalkeeper sent his clearance straight into Remy and was lucky to see the ball trickle a yard wide of the post. He reminded the crowd of his poor ball distribution by kicking his next clearance straight into touch.
Szczesny has worked hard to improve since his poor performance on opening day. But there are still occasional lapses of concentration that put his team in trouble. He attempted to dribble past Michu in September and was lucky to see the ball go out of bounds. In November, his pass was intercepted by Sturridge but the ball bounced back into his arms. Three blunders, no goal conceded. I’m sure some goalkeepers would like to have Szczesny’s luck.
But here’s the irony of the situation: Arsenal is still in contention despite having a nonchalant goalkeeper and a wasteful striker. What does that tell you about the team? The Gunners lead the Premier League because they have the best balance between attack and defense. They are tied with Everton for the tightest defense with just 18 goals conceded and have the third most prolific offense behind Manchester City and Liverpool with 37 goals scored.
It is that balance between attack and defense that allows them to be consistent both at home and on the road. Their record at the Emirates Stadium (6W, 2D, 1L) is pretty similar to their away record (7W, 1D, 2L). While Manchester City and Chelsea have been more efficient at home, they have struggled on the road with just three wins from nine games. The main concern for Arsenal would be to see the Citizens become ruthless away from the Etihad Stadium. That would then force the Gunners to drop fewer points at home.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com