I said last week that in theory the Newcastle game should be an easy three points, but that easy games in the league were rare.
Well it panned out that scoring the two goals that won the game was easy, and hanging on for the three points afterwards was hard.
It felt to me like our dominance in large parts of the first half affected our mentality in the second. We seemed almost too eager to get forward, too confident in our passing, which meant that we lost the ball needlessly at times, and as the game went on the confidant but lax passing was replaced by rushed passing due to the pressure we were under.
What was good to see however was that we kept our defensive discipline and worked very hard. We largely restricted Newcastle to long range shots and they found themselves swarmed by red and white when they got into our final third.
He was conspicuous by his absence against Newcastle. Anyone who doesn’t consider him world class or uses the ‘he hasn’t justified his price tag’ line should watch the game back and see how and when our attacks broke down, and then watch Özil in action.
What he does more than anything else is that he makes the correct decisions on and off the ball. Ramsey often found himself the furthest forward of our central midfielders and as good as he can be he is too eager to go direct to goal, especially with a dribble, when sometimes Özil would choose a more subtle and more dangerous pass.
Set pieces & making dominance count
I remember a time in the not too distant past when a free kick 30 yards from goal wasn’t very useful to us, and corners were totally pointless. These days we are very dangerous from set pieces, as we showed last weekend, and this has added another dimension to our game. It also means that tight games often go in our favour.
Something else that I’ve only recently noticed, (which is probably not news to anyone but me) is how often we score our goals close together. Failing to make our dominance count was an accusation levelled at us constantly during our 9 trophyless years. It was hard to argue, especially when we’d lose a game by the odd goal having had 65% of the ball. These days we’re less obsessed with having possession and more obsessed with making it count, less obsessed by sterile dominance and more focused on being clinical.
In the last few weeks alone we’ve scored two goals within 5 minutes of each other on four occasions, effectively killing the game off. Against Middlesborough on 15th February we scored in the 27th and 29th minute. Against QPR we scored in the 64th and 69th, West Ham was the 81st and 84th and against Newcastle we opened the scoring in the 24th and scored what turned out to be the winner in the 28th.
It’s not happening in every game of course, it can’t, but it’s happening often enough to show that when we get on the front foot we make it count. I believe that Wenger’s move away from possession based football has been the key reason for this change, with our players less inclined to keep the ball in the midfield in order to probe and more inclined to attack in the final third, force errors and drag the opposition around to create gaps.
Moving on from the Newcastle win, special mention has to go to the rumours surrounding Theo and Marco Reus. I still think it would be a real shame to see Theo leave, but if he does go and we replace him with the German we can consider ourselves to have upgraded.
Reus is a very good player, technically gifted, quick and with an eye for goal. He does get injured a lot though, but it just wouldn’t be Arsenal if we didn’t buy an injury prone player every now and then.
A lot depends on who comes back fit from the pointless international break, but I can say with some certainty that we can expect a tough game, (not shocking news I know). Even without the suspended Skrtel and Gerrard and the alleged injury to Sturridge, Liverpool still have a lot to hurt us with. We’ll probably be without Welbeck but the Ox should be back, which is a huge plus for us.
Tactically we have to get it right on the day. Liverpool play with three at the back in order to dominate the middle of the park, but there is a way to compensate for this without changing our formation, (they might change due to Skrtel’s suspension but I doubt it).
Everyone recognises the need to escape their hard press, but United were the first team this year to do it right. When they won the ball back they transitioned to attack very fast, and more importantly to the other side of the pitch. This allowed them to exploit the space that having three at the back creates.
When Liverpool have the ball they tend to stay close to each other for two reasons. The first is to make passing easier, and the second is to be able to get the ball back quickly if they lose it. When they do lose it a midfielder drops back into defence, BUT by the very nature of their game it means that he tends to be on the same side as the ball is, so transitioning fast to the other side of the pitch makes it harder to cover the gaps. Watch United’s first goal back and watch the build-up. You’ll see that Henderson does get back to cover Mata, but just a fraction too late.
We need to employ a similar tactic, releasing the ball quickly when we win it back in tight areas and spread it across the field. If we get that aspect of our game right, it’ll go a long way towards getting us three points, and a long way to securing a top three finish.