Sunday, December 29, 2013

Newcastle 0 - Arsenal 1

"1-nil to the Arsenal." This was an old-school game. I didn't actually get to watch the first half - sounded like a pretty turgid affair in any case. In the second half, Arsenal had almost all the meaningful possession until the goal, scored in the 65th minute by Olivier Giroud, who split the Newcastle defense, and headed home from inside the six-year box. Theo Walcott (of all people) supplied Giroud with an excellently weighted free kick, lofted over the defense from the left channel outside the box. When was the last time you heard me compliment a pass by Walcott? Probably never. But credit where it is due.

After the goal, Arsenal did something disconcertingly pragmatic: they went into a defensive shell, even going so far as to play five across the defense, with Sagna joining Mertesacker (who was excellent, by the way) and Koscielny in central defense. Jenkinson and Flamini (the later replacing Gibbs, who hobbled off with an injury mid-way through the second half) were the fullbacks. I was concerned that Arsenal were adopting an unfamiliar formation in which players might not know how to react as a group to any particular attack. But the defense (especially the big German defender in the middle) successfully soaked up Newcastle's pressure throughout the final half-hour (including stoppage time). Although, they were nearly undone by a stupid error by the own goalie, who, taking too much time on the ball, proceeded to launch it firmly into the face of an onrushing Newcastle player. The rebounding ball came rolled us a few feet wide of the Arsenal net.

All in all, it was a gratifying Arsenal victory, which put them back to the top of the Barclay's Premier League at the end of the year and the midpoint of the season, just one slender point of surging Manchester City. With one game left of the busy holiday season, which will be Arsenal's fourth game in nine days, the Gunners seem almost to be running on fumes. A number of players have picked up niggling injuries, which require rest. In addition to losing Gibbs during today's match, Giroud and Wilshire both were seen to be hobbling at game's end. But the Gunners will have to suck it up and come out firing on New Year's Day, when they must pick up all three points against Cardiff City at home.

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