Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lucky Christmas (?)

Wigan 0-1 Arsenal... Arsenal P-P West Ham... Arsenal 7-3 Newcastle

Arsenal led a charmed Christmas, enjoying slices of luck on the pitch and off.

A tube strike meant that the West Ham game on Boxing Day was postponed, and unlike most Premiership teams, the Gunners had a significant rest between holiday period games.

At the JJB, Wigan performed well, pressing all over the park and denying Cazorla the room to influence matters as he had at Reading. Chances were at a premium throughout. In the first half, Di Santo released Kone on goal, but the striker snatched at the chance and shot wide.

Arsenal perked up after the interval, and Chamerlain broke free on the right to tee up Walcott, but his awkward first-time effort was repelled by the keeper.

Overall, Arsenal looked worryingly toothless, as on many occasions this season, but this time there was a clean sheet, and this time there was a piece of luck to turn the game their way.

Around the hour mark, Walcott entered the Wigan area on the end of a one-two with Cazorla, felt the slightest of contact from Beausejour at his back, and tumbled. He heard the welcome sound of Jon Moss's whistle, saw the referee point to the penalty spot, and Mikel Arteta coolly sent Al Habsi the wrong way. It was a contentious decision, but Arsenal did what they haven't done half often enough in recent years- they ground it out.

It was far from a flowing performance- the team continues to lack the ability to truly control a game- but the defence was as disciplined as it needed to be. No silly stuff, or at least much less of it than we've become used to. When Kone wriggled past Sagna to find a clear sight of the target, Szczesny saved well. After a couple of hopeful penalty shouts for the home side, the points were safe.


Arsene Wenger could put his feet up on Stephen's Day as Newcastle toiled in a losing cause at Old Trafford, safe in the knowledge that a tired, injury-blighted Magpies team were next on Arsenal's agenda. It was only in the latter stages of the game at the Emirates, however, that Arsenal looked comfortable, Newcastle fell away, and ruthless finishing lent the scoreline a harshness that had long looked unlikely.

In the first half, Arsenal were slow and sluggish, and Newcastle deserved at least the parity they held at the interval. Ba had already missed with a free header before Walcott broke the visitors' high line from Podolski's piercing pass and drew Krul to finish with his best Henry impression.

Minutes before half time, Sagna felled Obertan with a rash challenge on the edge of the Arsenal area. Ba went for goal from the free kick, and a flinching Wilshere deflected the shot beyond Szczesny. The away side had chances to take the lead before the break and if Arsene Wenger was moved to anger by his men's listlessness, they responded immediately to his pep talk.

Gibbs was denied by Krul from a Podolski pass, before Newcastle lost possession cheaply from a throw-in, Cazorla shifted the ball across the edge of the area to Chamberlain, and the winger fired crisply across Krul for 2-1.

It felt like Arsenal were finally taking control of proceedings but the craziness was yet to truly begin. When Obertan jinked past Sagna (the right back enjoying a rare bad day) and into the box, his cut back clipped off Koscielny and landed kindly for Marveau, all alone at the back post. 2-2.

Arsenal responded again. Wilshere jinked brilliantly into the box after winning the ball from Tiote, but looked to have been crowded out, before scooping a superlative cross to the back stick. On the goalline and under pressure, Collocini tried to nod the ball over his own bar, but it bounced down off the woodwork for the waiting Podolski, for whom the finish was a formality.

Again, calm and control were elusive. The team look nervy in possession, but lack the defensive nous to effectively sit on a lead. With Walcott in the central striker's role again, there was nobody to hold the ball up and take the pressure off. It was no surprise then that Newcastle kept coming. They were without Ben Arfa and Cabaye, their main creative players, but either would have been proud of the cross that Marveau produced with the outside of his left foot to set up Ba for a third equaliser. Gibbs was daydreaming at the back stick, but made amends minutes later.

After a flowing move, Podolski played in the left back in a similar position from which he'd earlier shot straight at Krul. This time, he tried to return the ball to Podolski, who took a fresh air swipe, but the ball fell for Walcott who spun and, just when it looked as if the chance was gone, blasted the ball into the roof of the net.

With just the 73 minutes gone there would have been little confidence on the Arsenal bench of the team's ability to shut the game down, and so it was a shrewd move to go ahead with sending Giroud on even though the substitution was being planned at 3-3. Walcott turned provider to help make the game safe, overlapping Sagna to whip a wicked cross that met the forehead of the diving Giroud.

A flurry of further goalmouth action buried somewhat the memory of Arsenal's earlier lethargy. Walcott dribbled infield and fell but the ball made its way to Giroud in the box, who blasted home near post with his right foot. Then Walcott dribbled infield again, this time from the left, and again fell, this time fouled, but with no decision forthcoming sprang back to his feet and flipped a cheeky dink over the keeper to seal an impressive hat trick.

There was still time for Giroud to almost emulate that feat- and in only twenty minutes- but his effort from fellow sub Ramsey's low cross clattered off the bar, and we had to make do with just the seven goals.

It was a crazy game that showcased the best and worst of the current Arsenal team. Our most efficient attacker is a limited all-round footballer, not suited to the complexities of the centre forward role, but a great finisher and a player that Arsenal certainly need, at least for the remainder of the season.

Is that need the reason for his sudden deployment as an out-and-out striker? Is Wenger playing him there to encourage him to commit his future? Or is it just a pragmatic move? After all, Gervinho took up the role early in the season and he seems even less suited to it than Walcott.

Statisticians may point to four goals in three games, some assists and a very important penalty won, to support the assertion that Walcott is now ready to be the main man. But looking at the general standard of Arsenal's play, especially at Wigan in the last half hour, I think it a real gamble to play Walcott up front. He has no physical presence, and for a team with a not very physical midfield, in a league that is very physical, it makes matters even more difficult.

It was notable, as Arsenal defended that slender lead against Wigan, that there was no outlet to help relieve the pressure. The home side just kept coming. On that occasion, Arsenal proved unusually sturdy, but better opposition would have punished our inability to control the ball. Against Newcastle, without the ill Mertesacker, the defence was unable to shackle Ba, and a lightweight midfield was unable to protect that defence. We got away with it thanks to some great attacking play (and Newcastle's falling away), but overall, my impression is that the team desperately needs more muscle. That means, at the very least, starting Giroud up front.

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