Arsenal moved closer to the last Champions League berth by thrashing Newcastle 3-0 on Monday. The Gunners are now four points clear of Everton in the Premier League with just two rounds left. They could punch their ticket for the lucrative European competition by Saturday if the Toffees lose to Manchester City. Otherwise, they would need to match Everton’s result against West Bromwich on Sunday to secure fourth place before the last round.
Wenger fielded the same team that routed Hull 3-0 on April 20th and left Oxlade-Chamberlain out of the squad to help him recover from a groin strain. The opening minutes were unimpressive. Arsenal dominated possession but mostly made lateral passes while the Magpies, who had lost their five previous games, were reluctant to press high up the pitch and preferred to wait inside their own half for counterattacking opportunities.
Unable to find the solution from open play, the Gunners capitalized on a set piece to break the deadlock in the 26th minute. Koscielny got ahead of Sissoko to slide home a free kick from Cazorla. The Frenchman earned a yellow card for kicking the ball into the stands while celebrating his goal.
Making the most of set pieces
That goal reminded me of the opener scored by Skrtel in the 5-1 loss to Liverpool with a similar failure to attack the ball and some really poor marking. The Gunners have often been mocked in the past seasons for their inability to defend set pieces. But on Monday, it was the Magpies who were in Arsenal’s shoes.
When you have an off day or a poor start, your best chance sometimes comes from a set piece. I remember matches when Campbell and Vieira would head in a corner to give us a scrappy win. Watching spectacular goals is fun but it doesn’t hurt to turn set pieces into chances.
The Gunners could have scored one or two goals from corners. Podolski escaped Dummett’s marking to head a corner from Cazorla in the 30th but Krul made the save. Cazorla then pounced on a poor clearance from a corner to fire over the bar in the 53rd. Five minutes later, Sagna redirected a corner from Ozil toward Koscielny, whose off-target volley was blocked by a Magpie. That was quite a change from the 4-1 win over Everton in the FA Cup: Arsenal could not create a single chance from 10 corners in the first half of that match.
Mixing up short passes and long balls
Another positive from Monday’s victory was the variety in our passing game. The Gunners mixed up short passes with long balls. That makes them less predictable than when they only rely on quick one-touch passing to split a defense. Walcott’s long absence because of an abdominal tear and a knee injury has been the main reason why the Gunners have overemphasized short passes. Pacy forwards are usually the main outlets for long balls.
But on Monday, Arsenal took advantage of Newcastle’s passivity to play some long balls behind the defense. Giroud was offside when Sagna sent him a long pass in the 21st. The French striker does not have Walcott’s pace and therefore needs to perfectly time his run. Giroud made the adjustment four minutes later, beating the offside trap to collect a long ball from Sagna, but Sissoko fouled him to kill the play. The ensuing free kick led to the opening goal.
There was more room for long balls in the second half as the Gunners found more space than in the first half. Sagna controlled Cazorla’s long pass from the left wing in the 64th to feed Giroud, but the French striker could not make contact with the ball for a sliding effort. In the closing minutes, Arteta sent a ball over the top to Monreal, whose low angled strike was stopped by Krul.
Ozil’s ability to read the game
Newcastle’s passivity helps explain why Arsenal’s long balls were more efficient than in the 3-1 win over West Ham. But another explanation is the return from injury of Ozil and Ramsey. Ozil did not play against the Hammers while Ramsey did not start the match two weeks ago. Ozil and Ramsey are two very mobile midfielders who can create space with their runs. They also add more accuracy to Arsenal’s passing game.
Ozil has become a key player in the team because of his flawless technique and his ability to read the game. Arteta had plenty of time to send a long ball to Giroud in the 42nd. The French striker outpaced the Newcastle defense but was denied twice by Krul. The rebound fell to Ozil, who shot past two defenders for a 2-0 lead. Giroud’s decision-making was poor on that play. When he made his first attempt from a tight angle, an unmarked Ozil was waiting at the far post for a simple tap-in.
The Gunners added a third goal in the 66th. Ozil took a reverse pass from Ramsey to cross for Giroud, who made a smart run at the near post to escape Coloccini’s marking and headed in from close range. Ozil was also involved in three more chances. He volleyed wide a loose ball in the 17th after Krul punched away a cross from Cazorla. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil connected with Cazorla, who rounded Coloccini to fire an angled strike that Krul turned around the post. Ozil then fed Podolski in the 69th but the Germany forward’s first-time effort deflected off a Magpie.
Resting Ramsey and Ozil
The manager replaced Ramsey and Ozil with Flamini and Rosicky in the 73rd. I thought it was a smart decision since the Magpies were unlikely to erase a three-goal deficit. Of course, another factor is the FA Cup final. You want to keep your best players fresh for your only chance to lift a trophy this season.
Ramsey was not as brilliant as in the 3-0 win over Hull, but he had a good game despite some errant passes in the first half. He controlled a high pass from Giroud in the 28th to play Podolski in, but Krul stopped the German forward’s effort with his leg.
Arsenal’s defensive performance was better than against the Tigers. The only scare came in the 58th when Remy fed Gouffran, who outpaced Koscielny but shot straight at Szczesny. The execution of the offside trap was poor on that play. Just before Remy made the pass, Mertesacker made a step forward while Sagna stopped tracking Gouffran. Koscielny failed to read the play but at least he didn’t make a silly foul while pressuring Gouffran.
Top 4 finish as an achievement
The Gunners mostly limited Newcastle to long-range attempts. Sissoko dribbled past Mertesacker in the 20th but sent his curling shot wide. Then a 35-yard drive from Tiote went straight into Szczesny’s gloves in the 33rd.
While Monreal made a strong impression in his first season at the club, he’s really had some shaky performances in his second. The Spaniard was outmuscled by Debuchy, who missed the target from the edge of the box in the 37th. Gouffran then easily cut inside Monreal in the 71st but had his tame effort saved by Szczesny. Now I wonder to what extent Monreal’s foot injury has bothered him this season.
The Gunners’ season looked really bleak when they lost 3-0 at Everton. But qualifying for the FA Cup final and convincing victories over West Ham, Hull and Newcastle have restored some confidence. By contrast, the Toffees have wasted much of their momentum after losses to Crystal Palace and Southampton. Manchester United’s failure to qualify for the Champions League is a reminder that it’s still an achievement to finish in the Top 4.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com