Arsenal vs. Newcastle: Depleted Gunners produce their best performance of season in 4-1 win

What the score doesn’t say is that Arsenal led at halftime in a Premier League game at the Emirates stadium for the first time this season. This result capped a fantastic week for the Gunners, who reached the last 16 of the Champions League for the 15th straight year after routing Galatasaray 4-1 on Tuesday. This consistency has prevented the club from drowning in a crisis like the one faced by Manchester United last season. The Gunners have a bit more breathing room but are still under pressure because they trail fourth-place West Ham by two points.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle

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I wasn’t optimistic before Saturday’s match. On the one hand, the Magpies were in great shape after ending Chelsea’s unbeaten run a week ago. On the other, our depleted squad meant Wenger fielded a makeshift defense with Debuchy at centerback and Bellerin at rightback.

The manager was smart enough to leave Gibbs, Sanchez, Welbeck and Cazorla out of the Galatasaray match while Giroud also had some rest because he’s not qualified for the group stage of the Champions League. But Chambers’ suspension and injuries to Ramsey and Koscielny still limited Wenger’s options. We were so short in midfield that the club even recalled Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton.

The manager made three changes to the side that lost 3-2 at Stoke last weekend with Szczesny getting the nod over Martinez in goal and Debuchy and Welbeck replacing Chambers and Ramsey in the starting lineup. Arsenal got off to a good start with an interception from Welbeck in the opening minute. The England forward combined with Sanchez but had his cross blocked. Seven minutes later, Mertesacker’s reverse header from a corner bounced off the bar.

Sanchez and Giroud on the same page

The Gunners took the lead in the 15th when Bellerin intercepted a pass for Gouffran. The ball fell to Giroud, who released Sanchez down the right wing. The Frenchman then made a run toward the penalty spot and outjumped Janmaat to head Sanchez’s cross into the top corner. Sanchez and Giroud developed a good understanding on Saturday. In the 21st, the Chile forward cut the ball back for Giroud, who seemed to be tripped by Tiote inside the box. Initially, I thought it was a penalty. But after carefully watching the replay, I noticed that Giroud obstructed Tiote while attempting to shield the ball. Sanchez made another cross for Giroud in the 43rd, but Williamson headed the ball out.

Sanchez did not score, but he proved a handful for the Newcastle defense with his movement, close control and dribbling skills. Arsenal should have been awarded a penalty in the 38th when Dummett shoved Sanchez from behind, but the referee did not blow the whistle. Sanchez also wasted a counterattack with a poor pass to Welbeck in the 78th.

We know Giroud’s limitations, especially his lack of pace, but the Frenchman reminded his critics on Saturday that he’s more reliable for goals than Welbeck. Giroud flicked home a low cross from Bellerin with the outside of his left boot to make it 3-0 in the 58th. Two chances, two goals. Giroud showed what Welbeck needs to improve.

Welbeck’s finishing

It could have been a different story for Welbeck, who had a goal disallowed in the 16th. Gibbs fed him with an inside pass and the England forward chipped Alnwick from a tight angle. Definitely a classy finish. Except Welbeck inadvertently tripped Janmaat before shooting. That kind of foul is very difficult to spot at normal speed, so kudos to the referee for making the right call.

Some fans were not happy with the officiating but I thought it was decent. My only reservation was how Tiote got away with kicking Sanchez in the stomach after six minutes. It wasn’t as bad as De Jong’s kung-fu kick in the 2010 World Cup final but it was at least a yellow card. There was also some inconsistency from the referee as Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin received yellow cards for their first fouls (late challenges but not cynical fouls) while the Magpies were not booked for taking turns to foul Sanchez.

Welbeck showed again his tremendous work rate. His interception in the 69th led to a goalmouth scramble and a volley from Gibbs that sailed wide. He also won a penalty in the 88th after Dummett had brought him down. Cazorla converted the spot kick with an audacious chip in the middle of the net. The next step for Welbeck is to improve his finishing. He connected with a ball over the top from Sanchez in the 31st but volleyed wide from 12 yards. It’s the kind of chance that Welbeck must convert to become a first-choice centerforward.

The short and the long

Cazorla has seemed to refind his shooting boots lately, scoring three goals in his last two games. He combined with Sanchez in the 54th, beating Coloccini and skipping past Wiliamson to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead with a chip from a tight angle. The Spaniard also had a free kick palmed away by Alnwick in the 61st and took a pass from Giroud in the 64th to volley into the side-netting. Surprisingly, Cazorla was a bit erratic with his passing, wasting good situations in the 50th and the 53rd.

The Gunners mixed up well short and long balls to crack the Newcastle defense. Giroud and Welbeck are natural outlets for long balls while Sanchez, Cazorla and Chambo thrive on short passes and tiny spaces. Chambo had a good all-around display although he struggled a bit in his positioning with Cazorla, who is more used to playing with Ramsey or Wilshere in midfield. Both made adjustments in the second half to generate more fluidity in our passing game and more efficiency in our defending.

Chambo initiated the third goal by releasing Bellerin down the right wing and was also involved in two good plays. A high bounce prevented Chambo from sending Giroud clean through on goal in the 13th while a cynical foul from Tiote kept him from completing a one-two with Sanchez in the 59th.

Bellerin’s technique

I guess fans are a bit more aware of Bellerin’s potential after Saturday’s game. He played a key role in the first and third goals and made a good effort to stop crosses. His technique is outstanding for a fullback. He made an impressive run from his own half in the 28th, outpacing two Magpies to have a goal attempt blocked. After receiving a harsh yellow card in the 37th, the Spaniard kept his cool to avoid a second booking.

At 19, Bellerin is still a raw player. He will need to beef up a bit because Gouffran too easily outmuscled him off the ball in the fourth minute. He will also need to cut his turnover rate and especially avoid risky passes on the edge of the Arsenal area. Last but not least, he must improve his man-marking skills. Perez lost him with a run toward the near post to glance in Colback’s free kick in the 63rd.

Despite a makeshift back four, the Gunners only allowed two scoring chances, both from set pieces. Szczesny protected Arsenal’s lead with a double save in the 34th. The Poland goalkeeper parried Gouffran’s downward header from a free kick before denying Cisse, who had pounced on the rebound. Defending set pieces is still a recurrent issue as Gouffran outjumped Bellerin and Debuchy while Cisse beat Welbeck to the second ball.

Making a move in January

This victory could have a huge impact on the morale of the team. The Gunners produced a great performance despite missing an entire team (Ospina, Monreal, Chambers, Koscielny, Arteta, Diaby, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Rosicky and Walcott). That means Arsenal could rack up points in a busy year-end period without some of their best players. A defeat against Newcastle would have instilled the idea that our depleted squad wasn’t strong enough to cope with a gruelling schedule.

Hopefully, the club will still be in a decent position in the standings when the winter transfer window opens. The manager has clearly made a mistake in the assessment of his squad this summer. It’s not the first time but he has the opportunity to fix that in a few weeks. Let’s not kid ourselves. We have major holes in midfield and at centerback. If we don’t make a move next month, finishing in the top four could be like a lottery.

Mertesacker, 30, and Arteta, 32, are really slow, while Flamini, 30, and Rosicky, 34, are past their prime. Koscielny (Achilles), Arteta (calf), Ramsey (hamstring), Wilshere (ankle) and Diaby (calf) have had recurrent injuries and Walcott hasn’t started any match since the knee injury he picked up in January, so there’s no guarantee they’ll play many games in the second half of the season.