Arsenal vs. Newcastle: Gunners grind out 1-0 win to go 2 points clear

Winning ugly is what really matters when you don’t have your best stuff in the middle of a title race. Nobody would have been shocked if Newcastle had led at halftime under a pouring rain. But Cech’s heroics combined with Koscielny’s poaching instincts helped Arsenal win 1-0 on Saturday to build a two-point lead over Leicester in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Cech made six saves to put his team in a position to win that game. Three were routine saves and three were difficult ones. The Czech goalkeeper was one of the few Gunners who performed at a good level. The defense was a mess while the offense struggled with the final ball in the first half and with the finishing in the second.

The manager made three changes to the side that defeated Bournemouth 2-0 last Monday with Flamini, Monreal and Koscielny replacing Chambers, Paulista and Gibbs in the starting lineup. Flamini was definitely the one who benefited the most from the rest. The French midfielder won 5 of 6 tackles (the most for any player on the pitch) and made 2 interceptions. On the other hand, Koscielny’s performance proved a mixed bag while Monreal did a poor job to stop dangerous crosses. Koscielny scored the lone goal, won 2 of 2 tackles and made 4 interceptions, but he also made 3 fouls (tied with Flamini for the most by a player), was dispossessed twice and won just 50% of his duels.

Cech stopping a point-blank shot

Most of the Magpies’ chances came from our left flank where Monreal did not get much help from Walcott and had a hard time with Sissoko and Janmaat. Tiote made a cross in the 16th minute for Wijnaldum, whose header was palmed away by Cech. The rebound fell to Mitrovic, who cut the ball back to Colback. The Newcastle midfielder fired a first-time effort straight at Cech. The situation on our left flank was a bit tricky on that play. Walcott was marking Janmaat while Monreal kept an eye on Sissoko. So it was up to Ramsey or Ozil to pressure Tiote. Then Koscielny lost his duel against Wijnaldum while Oxlade-Chamberlain was caught napping when Mitrovic picked out Colback.

Monreal was often guilty of not staying tight to Janmaat, whose accurate delivery created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense. Bellerin poorly cleared a cross from Janmaat in the 42nd. Mitrovic pounced on the second ball for an overhead kick straight at Cech. A minute later, Monreal failed again to cut out a cross from Janmaat. Ramsey miskicked his clearance, sending the ball into the path of Wijnaldum, whose point-blank shot was parried by Cech.

The Magpies then hit the hosts on the fast break in the 49th. Perez redirected a cross from Sissoko toward Mitrovic, who volleyed over the bar from close range. Bellerin failed to spot Perez’s run behind him on that play while Mertesacker lost his duel against Mitrovic. Newcastle had a couple more chances from crosses but Mbemba in the 65th and Mitrovic in the 81st headed the ball over the bar as Koscielny lost his duel on both plays.

Cheap turnovers

The manager tried to shackle the flanks by replacing Walcott with Gibbs in the 81st and Giroud with Chambers in the 88th. That tactical move did not prevent Monreal from giving Thauvin too much space for a cross in the last minute of stoppage time. Fortunately, De Jong’s overhead kick lacked power to beat Cech.

The Gunners also put themselves in trouble with a few cheap turnovers. Bellerin gave the ball away to Mitrovic in the 39th. The Serbian striker led a counterattack but dallied on the ball and had his shot blocked by Koscielny. Then Perez intercepted Ramsey’s telegraphed pass for Ozil in the 48th to send Wijnaldum clean through on goal. However, Cech quickly came off his line to deny the Dutch midfielder. Both Ozil and Ramsey failed to track back on that play, leaving the Arsenal defense exposed in a 3 vs. 3 situation. Flamini was closing down Perez while Mertesacker and Koscielny were both marking Mitrovic. If Mertesacker had more pace, he would have slid to his left to block Mitrovic’s inside route and allow Koscielny to track Wijnaldum’s run. In the closing minutes, the Magpies capitalized on an Ozil turnover to get a corner. Wijnaldum outjumped Mertesacker to meet Janmaat’s cross but powered his header over the bar.

A week ago, Southampton managed to limit Ozil’s influence in midfield with some hard work from Wanyama and Clasie. Newcastle clearly took a leaf out of the Saints’ book as Tiote and Colback took turns marking Ozil, which explained the lack of fluency in our passing game and put more pressure on Ramsey to build play from the back. Ozil still managed to have four shot assists but his passing accuracy was down to 83.9% (compared to 95% for the game against Bournemouth).

Fatigue affecting Arsenal

Wenger hasn’t been able to rotate in midfield and up front over the past few weeks because of injuries (Coquelin, Cazorla, Wilshere, Rosicky, Arteta, Sanchez, Welbeck). It was therefore no surprise to see fatigue affecting the team with Ozil and Ramsey having very few passing options because of the lack of movement. When the Gunners didn’t have the ball, they also lacked the energy to press high up the pitch.

Giroud, Walcott and the Ox performed poorly. The Frenchman was dispossessed four times, the Ox three times and Walcott twice. Walcott was pretty much a ghost, with just 35 touches (the fewest among the starters in the outfield), one shot assist and one goal attempt not even on target. Giroud created two chances and had five shots but none was on target.

The Ox tried hard again, and that might be the problem. I think he’s simply trying too hard. At a stage of his career, Ramsey also tried to force a shot or a pass out of nothing. It’s only when Ramsey kept it simple that things improved for him. The Ox made crosses that went nowhere in the 33rd and the 58th and dragged a 30-yard drive wide in the 36th. The England international quickly got frustrated and was lucky not to receive any card despite flicking a boot out to trip Perez in the 19th and making a late tackle on the Newcastle forward in the 28th.

Showing desire for a scrappy goal

The Magpies were under siege in the opening minutes as Perez gave Bellerin too much space on our right flank. But too often the quality of the final ball was not good enough. Giroud couldn’t connect with a cross from Bellerin in the first minute and a minute later the Ox was a split second late, volleying wide another cross from Bellerin. Ramsey then overhit his return pass for Walcott while playing a one-two in the 32nd. On the stroke of halftime, Ozil hit a pinpoint free kick, but no Gunner was able to make contact with the ball.

The quality of the final ball improved in the second half but we were let down by our finishing. The Gunners caught the frame with only 3 of their 16 shots. Most of our chances came from Ramsey and Ozil as the wingers performed poorly. Monreal took a pass from Ramsey in the 48th to make a cross for Giroud who headed wide. Ramsey then released Ozil down the left flank in the 50th. The Germany playmaker played the ball back to Ramsey, whose sliding effort did not trouble Elliot.

Fresher than his teammates, Koscielny broke forward in the 59th to feed Giroud, whose shot took a deflection off Mbemba to sail over the bar. Koscielny’s first scoring chance came from an Ozil corner in the 66th but his header looped over the bar. The French centerback did not miss his second opportunity in the 72nd when Dummett poorly cleared an Ozil corner. Giroud outjumped Coloccini to win the second ball and flick it toward Koscielny, who got ahead of Perez and beat Elliot from close range. That goal was all about desire. Newcastle won the first duel on that play but Giroud and Koscielny won the next two.

Ramsey’s injury scare

Arsenal could have put the result beyond doubt in the closing minutes. Walcott connected with a cross from Monreal in the 79th but miskicked his volley. Campbell, who had replaced the Ox in the 68th, dribbled past a defender to find Ramsey inside the area in the 88th. The Wales midfielder created some space by dragging the ball back before pulling the trigger from a tight angle but Elliot made the save. Ramsey had a better sight of goal in the 90th. He played a one-two with Ozil and dribbled past Coloccini and Dummett only to curl wide of the far post. In that kind of situation, the best option is simply to shoot inside the near post. Easier said than done, obviously. In stoppage time, Ramsey fed Ozil, who cut inside Coloccini to fire into the side-netting.

Ramsey created two chances and had 2 of 3 shots on target but his defensive performance was average. He won only 1 of 3 tackles and failed to track back in a couple of plays. Tiote too easily skipped past him to set up Perez in the 26th. Arsenal fans had a minor scare in the 39th when Ramsey slipped in a challenge and seemed to have hurt his groin.

The manager will need to thoroughly assess the fitness of his squad in the next couple of days. The Gunners will play an FA Cup game against Sunderland on Jan. 9 before having four tough Premier League matches. They’ll visit Liverpool on Jan. 13 and Stoke on Jan. 17 before hosting Chelsea on Jan. 24 and Southampton on Feb. 2. Chelsea and Southampton have beaten Arsenal this season while we haven’t done well at Liverpool and Stoke in the past two seasons.

Protecting the team chemistry

If some Gunners need a rest, it’s definitely now because it will be too late in February. We should do our best to defend our FA Cup title but the priority must be the league. I’m not sure we’ll ever have such a favorable context again with Chelsea in self-destruction mode, Liverpool and Manchester United going through a difficult transition process, and Manchester City struggling with injuries.

I would rest key players like Ozil, Ramsey and Flamini next weekend and start players who need either playing time or a confidence boost (Debuchy, Paulista, Chambers, Gibbs, Campbell, Ox and Iwobi).

Wenger might sign a player during the winter transfer window to strengthen his squad. The obvious position is holding midfielder since Coquelin won’t return before February, Arteta is injury-prone, Flamini is past his prime and needs more time to recover from games and Chambers is still inexperienced. Up front, I doubt a quality striker could be available in January. At the back, we don’t need any new signing but Debuchy seems very unhappy on the bench. Should we offload him to protect the team chemistry?

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