The last round of games before the international break took place this weekend and, truth be told, I’m a little relieved there will be no games for the next two weeks. The build-up to matches with rallying cries from managers and players alike, nerves spiking during games themselves and a short respite after the 90 minutes before the process repeats itself can be highly exhausting, especially when games take place every three days or so.
Luckily for Arsenal fans, the team performed admirably since the turn of the year. There were blips, no doubt about that (one such blip cost us a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League), but you have to admit we’ve put quite a run together: 15 wins out of possible 18 in all competitions. Impressive.
What is particularly heart-warming is that we go into the break on the back of another win. Thus, there will be no dissection of mistakes, no “what-ifs” and no negativity for at least two weeks. And now, onto the game itself.
Wenger’s selection was affected by the upcoming friendlies less than I anticipated. Chambers for Bellerin was the only such change. Gabriel was thrown on for Mertesacker (I suspect because we faced a pace Perez) Cazorla started the game despite receiving a call-up to Spain’s squad while the front three remained unchanged from our midweek escapades. Which is a bit strange: Giroud, Welbeck, and Sanchez were all included in their respective squads, besides, at least the Chilean needed a rest badly. However, the side looked well-balanced, and it showed during the first half. Ozil missed the game through illness.
The first half
This clash was as much a tale of two halves as I’ve seen this season. We witnessed two completely different sides to Arsenal’s game, and I liked both. The first half was a demonstration of what a balanced and relatively injury-free Arsenal can do. The teams exchanged moments in the opening stages, with Giroud failing to make Alexis’s cross count and then Gabriel blocking Perez’s shot before Arsenal seized the initiative.
Sanchez saw a shot blocked following Cazorla’s cross from a free-kick, Ramsey tried to fool Krul when a more obvious solution could have seen put us go a goal up and then we finally scored. Welbeck nodded another Cazorla’s free-kick into Giroud’s path and our man of the moment took a touch with his knee to send the ball past Krul. 1-0.
This goal broke the dam and chances came flooding in. There were a couple of “almost one-on-ones” and shortly after these Sanchez fashioned an opportunity for Welbeck. The Chilean’s beautiful flick helped him escape Gouffran and Welbeck only had to hit the corner of the net. Danny missed.
Cazorla performed a dance in the box with Krul helplessly staring at the Spaniard, and the subsequent interchange led to a corner. Cazorla stepped up, swung the ball in, and Giroud nodded past a stranded Krul. 2-0.
We could have scored a third, only for Ramsey to interfere with a cross destined for Giroud. However, we had strong defending from Koscielny and Gabriel to thank for going two up into the dressing room.
The second half
It was vastly different from the first and despite the fact every Arsenal fan was fidgeting on the edge of his seat right until the whistle blew, there was something fresh and, dare I say, beautiful in the way we played.
Which was backs-to-the-wall stuff? The only moment of danger we produced happened deep in injury time, I think, when Bellerin (who came on for Welbeck to shore things up) almost squared the ball to the onrushing Giroud. Krul interfered with the Spaniard’s small cross.
The rest of the half was all Newcastle. They scored in the 48th minute after Taylor and Cabella fooled Coquelin and Monreal on the left, and the Frenchman pulled the ball back for Sissokho. Moussa took one touch to put the ball into the net with Ospina wrong-footed, and I have to give some credit to Newcastle. It was a brilliant interchange, one that would have left us drooling, had it happened at the other end of the pitch.
The goal looked to have sapped us of energy, but I wonder whether we already were that way before. It’s hard to say, cause this assumption is based on what happened after the goal, rather than before (you can’t make a definitive judgment on how the team played based on a three-minute sample).
I think, however, that a pretty straightforward thing happened: after the conceded goal. Arsenal players suddenly remembered they were human beings, who were well into their fourth game inside 12 days, a third away game. Most importantly, they faced Monaco in an exhausting encounter four days earlier and went out only just. That game undoubtedly left both a psychological and a physical trace and so Arsenal decided to shut shop. The Gunners didn’t even try to counter Newcastle’s attacks, and so the Magpies were given free rein.
It could have proved costly. Perez curled a shot just wide, Gouffran blasted his straight into Ospina following a corner and then the Colombian produced a most brilliant save from Sissokho’s point-blank header after yet another corner.
David was called into play yet again when Cabella powered through our defense and took a shot. Minutes later a substitute Gutierrez fizzed his attempt across the goal and, finally, Cabella was denied by Ospina with clock ticking away. A beautiful save from the Colombian with his legs. We held on in the end.
One last thing. Despite everyone crying about how poor we were in the second half, I am firmly of the opinion we saw a different side to Arsenal, which is not all that bad. We showed some grit to hang onto our points, and it’s not the first time we did so successfully this year. There were slip-ups, sure, but there also were some beautiful bright examples of how we got our way by defending backs-to-the-wall. Like we did for City and United. Like when we hung on against West Ham, Leicester, QPR (twice), Crystal Palace and others. I prefer to think of our second half as something more than just having a lucky bounce. To me, it looks like this Arsenal side finally developed the valuable trait we’ve so craved for years. The ability to win games after going up, or, as some would put it “the ability to win ugly”. I’m not just fine with that; I’m happy.
That’s it for now. Enjoy the break from (actual) football and keep your eyes peeled for other articles on Gunners Town. There will be plenty.