Goals: Walcott (20), Ba (44), Oxlade-Chamberlain (50), Mervaux (59), Podolski (64), Ba (69), Walcott (73), Giroud (84), Giroud (87), Walcott (90+1)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Koscielny (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Cazorla (CM), Podolski (LF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (RF), Walcott (CF).
Arsenal demolished Newcastle United in what looked like a water polo match rather than a football one as far as defending was concerned. The visitors equalized three times before completely surrendering in the last 20 minutes, with Theo Walcott grabbing a hat-trick.
As Wenger agreed afterwards, this was one of those games where the scoreline did not quite reflect the balance of play. When Newcastle equalized for the third time with 20 minutes to go, many Arsenal fans would just be more than content with a narrow victory, as they understandably placed no faith in their team’s ability to defend a lead. The game was tied at 3-3 when the Newcastle manager Alan Pardew yelled at his players from the touch line “No more, no more!”. He probably meant “Concede no more”. Yet, perhaps due to the exhaustion from their midweek clash at Old Trafford where they also scored 3 goals without claiming a single point, his team responded to this instruction by collapsing in style.
The scoreline, as mentioned, told little of the game. In the whole of the first half, Arsenal were extremely passive off the ball, allowing Newcastle to knock it around with confidence. Instead of pressing high up the pitch, the home side seemed to prefer retreating into a 4-4-1-1 shape with two banks of four and trying to release Walcott quickly when they regained possession. Bar two occasions (one of which resulted in a goal by Walcott), this one-dimensional tactic was personally painful for me to watch, as the whole Arsenal play in the first half looked like a one big miscarried counterattack.
After an opening as flat and tasteless as a banquet at a Norwegian wedding, Arsenal opened the scoring in the 20th minute, when Podolski released Walcott behind on the left with a brilliant ball. As the Newcastle left back Santon played him onside, Walcott raced into the box and delivered a peach of a finish to the far corner which was textbook Thierry Henry.
Despite taking the lead, Arsenal did not switch gears and continued to look passive off the ball. They rarely closed down the Newcastle build-up and gained possession in areas where they could hurt the visitors. The chalkboard below illustrates how shy Arsenal were in demanding the ball back from Newcastle high up the pitch, with only one tackle in Newcastle half in the whole first half. The home team’s aggression higher up the pitch, however, increased considerably in the second half, especially led by Podolski on their left forward position (see the second chalkboard below).
Arsenal’s passive attitude off the ball during the first half rendered it impossible to raise the tempo as it increased the spells Newcastle kept the ball, and when the ball was regained, it was deep in the Arsenal’s half. Furthermore, with Walcott being always more interested in running behind rather than dropping a little deep to hold the ball for more mature attacks, the ball was lost quickly with increasingly predictable and rushed attempts to play Walcott behind. Yet, Arsenal could have extended their lead when Walcott did get behind, but wasted the chance with a tame shot with only Krul to beat.
When Newcastle equalized 3 minutes from half time, it surprised nobody as Arsenal were asking for trouble leaning back too much. Obertan cut inside from the left and was fouled somewhat needlessly by Sagna. From the resulting free-kick, Wilshere in the wall made himself even smaller than he actually is: Demba Ba’s shot got a deflection from his head and wrong-footed Szczesny.
Arsenal started the second half with considerably more energy and intent to press higher up the pitch, especially with Podolski making a brilliant effort to win the ball back in Newcastle half. When the German intercepted a throw-in deep in Newcastle half, Cazorla played a diagonal ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, and the youngster fired low and hard to the bottom corner past Krul’s dive. Newcastle immediately hit back again with annoying ease. Obertan tricked his way past Sagna and drove to the byline. Wilshere completely switched off and did not track at all Marveaux’s run to the far post, despite noticing Gibbs was drawn to Cisse coming inside: the French midfielder finished Obertan’s low cross into an empty net.
Both teams threw caution into the wind: The tempo was at nose-bleeding levels now, especially with Arsenal changing their passive attitude completely and executing an effective press higher up the pitch. Wilshere made amends to his mistake in Newcastle’s equalizer by picking Tiote’s pocket in Newcastle half, exchanging passes with Podolski and driving to the byline. His chipped cross to the far post was turned onto the bar by Coloccini, and Podolski headed home from half a yard.
The home fans were praying for Arsenal to hold onto their lead longer than 10 minutes, but it did not happen. Demba Ba headed a clearance to Marveaux’ path, and the Frenchman broke from midfield, tracked somewhat half-heartedly by Wilshere. Instead of choosing Obertan as the easy passing option on his left, Marveaux turned at the edge of the box and delivered a brilliant ball with the outside of his foot to Ba who had sneaked past Gibbs at the far post: the striker finished on the volley to equalize for the third time.
The game was looking like a juvenile fight between two immature kids, one immediately undoing what the other just did. Arsenal restored their lead right away. Podolski held Sagna’s ball in front of the box, and slipped Gibbs behind. The left back cut the ball back to Podolski, who missed, but Walcott did not miss despite being surrounded by defenders: it was another great finish.
Arsene Wenger then sent in Giroud replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain and moved Walcott to the right. The regular flow of the game would dictate Newcastle to equalize again, but Theo Walcott created two and scored one more in the last 10 minutes. First, a Beckhamesque pinpoint cross from the right had Giroud hammer home with a diving header. Then a chaotic Walcott dribble inside from the right was intercepted by Tiote, but Giroud picked up the loose ball, muscled his way past Colloccini and blasted it at the near post. In the extra time, Walcott played a free-kick short to Wilshere near the left corner flag, but instead of wasting time by the flag, he tricked his way past two defenders, ignored a trip to get back on his feet and cheekily chipped the ball past Krul from an impossible angle for his hat-trick.
The emphatic scoreline emphasized the best and worst of Arsenal this season. The ease that Newcastle kept equalizing before they were physically very tired and completely collapsed was worrisome from an Arsenal point of view. I will discuss some tactical aspects (the defensive problems with the Wilshere/Arteta axis and the dilemma Walcott presents as a centerforward) in a separate post.
Happy New Year to all who are reading this!!