What a game!
For us spectators it was up, down, up, down, up down… then a long and satisfying climax.
Followed by 50,000 metaphorical cigarettes being smoked as we all came down from such a thrilling ride.
Do you remember that children’s rhyme about magpies? One for sorrow, two for joy etc? Well it goes on to say: “Seven for a secret never to be told.”
As we put our seventh past The Magpies to finally overcome their dogged resistance, I fell to wondering what the “secret never to be told” might be.
Perhaps it’s the reason why Theo hasn’t signed a new contract? What Stan Kroenke really wants? Or maybe it’s as simple as: “Park Chu Young: Why?”
But enough of such contemplation: it’s time to celebrate a truly entertaining game of football – the sort of match that only the English Premier League seems to throw up.
Arsene made only one change to the team that had won its last two Premiership outings – Koscielny coming in for the unwell Mertesacker (“German measles” as someone wittily suggested in the comments yesterday).
It meant another outing for Theo Walcott down the middle – and another chance for him to try and convince the manager (and fans) that he is a central striker. His two previous showings had been inconclusive: he played well and scored one in the rout of Reading; against Wigan he was quieter but won the penalty that led to us pocketing all three points.
Apparently Thierry Henry – who is back training with us and may well be signed on a short term loan again – has been working with Theo to improve his general strikeriness. Can a god train a mortal in the arts of the divine? We would have to wait and see…
Newcastle were coming off the back of a brave and narrow midweek defeat at Old Trafford. They also had several first teamers out injured – but not the man with whom we are being strongly linked as a possible January transfer target: Demba Ba.
Arsenal were fast out of the blocks, applying pressure early on and threatening both Newcastle flanks. When we went ahead in the 20th minute it was no more than we deserved.
Podolski, who had an industrious game, split the Magpies’ defence with a pass that invited Walcott to run straight at goal. His pace kept him ahead of the defenders and once inside the area he opened up his body to side-foot the ball past Tim Krul’s laft hand and into the bottom corner of the net. It was a really fine finish – indeed, a finish reminiscent of Thierry, who was looking on from the stands. Theo down the middle? You bet!
Having taken the lead, we fell back into one of this season’s recurring bad habits: taking our foot off the gas: reducing our pressing game and ceding both territory and possession to the Geordies.
It was disappointing, but on the plus side we were not allowing Newcastle to create clear cut chances (although a long range effort from Tiote brought back uncomfortable memories of that awful day at St James Park when we were winning four-nil at half time but gave up four second half goals to a Toon attack spearheaded by Phil “Fatty” Dowd).
Eight minutes before the break we should have gone two up when Walcott, after a nice exchange with Podolski, found himself one-on-one against Krul again, this time much closer to the goal. Theo tried a chip but didn’t really catch hold of it and Krul saved. Theo down the middle? Don’t make me laugh!
As is often the way, our profligacy was soon punished. Just before the break Sagna gave away an unnecessary free kick outside our box. Ba stepped up to take it and fired in a shot that looked to be heading straight towards Szczesny for a routine save. Unfortunately Wilshere, as the spare man to the side of the wall, was in the ball’s path and couldn’t decide whether to duck or block. In the end he half ducked, the ball deflected off his head and went straight into the net.
Jack is a quick study and I doubt we will ever see him make that mistake again. Next time he’ll take the ball in the face if that’s what’s needed.
Half time – 1-1.
The second half saw us come out with greater attacking purpose, soon rewarded when Oxlade-Chamberlain fired in a low, hard shot to put us back in front.
But we all know that this Arsenal team can give up a goal to any attack at any time and, sure enough, only eight minutes later a bit of comic defending allowed Marveaux to tap in unchallenged at the far post after a low cross across the face of goal from Obertan, who had beaten Sagna far too easily.
On the television it was difficult to tell who was at fault for leaving a man completely unmarked at the back post.
Gibbs had been drawn into the middle of the box which seemed unnecessary when we had two centre backs in the six yard area, but maybe a midfielder should have spotted the danger and plugged the gap.
Could we get back in front? Well, in this seesaw game anything was clearly possible and we had a couple of decent half chances – Cazorla drawing a good save from Krul and Podolski just inches away from a through-ball into the box.
Our third eventually came from some brilliant work from Wilshere, who made it to the goal line inside the Toon area and chipped back a lethal cross into the six yard box from a really difficult angle. Coloccini had no option but to get his head on it right under the bar. The ball bounced off the crossbar and the predatory Podolski was on hand to head home.
This time, surely, we could hang on to our lead.
Not with this Arsenal!
Newcastle came back at us and, sure enough, we gave away another soft goal. Marveaux found space on our right flank and crossed a ball to the far post, where Ba was lurking – marked by Gibbs. Unfortunately our left back took his eye off the Newcastle striker to ball watch for a second and that was all Ba needed to break clear for an easy tap-in. Poor defending from Gibbs.
Three times ahead, three times clawed back. For an Arsenal team with a certain flakiness in its DNA this was a worrying trend.
But yesterday was not destined to have an unhappy ending.
Four minutes after Newcastle’s equalizer Walcott received the ball in the opposition penalty area after a great run and cutback by Gibbs. He had time to control the ball, turn and side foot it into the top left of the net. Another superb, composed Henryesque finish. Theo down the middle? He’s a natural born killer!
It would not have been entirely unexpected for Newcastle to haul themselves level again, but finally their exertions in Manchester seemed to catch up with them and Arsenal started to turn the screw.
Giroud was on for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey came on for Podolski. With Giroud’s appearance, Walcott was pushed out wide right and soon showed that he can be deadly from the wing too. An outstanding early cross invited a diving header from Giroud and the ball was powered through Krul’s legs to put us 5-3 up.
The two-goal deficit really made Toon heads drop and we pushed on for more. Giroud grabbed the sixth with a powerful low drive in the 88th minute. Then Walcott secured possession of the match ball with another stunning goal. Picking the ball up on the left wing he dribbled past two Toon defenders and into the box. He appeared to be fouled but picked himself up and finished with an audacious chip past Krul. Theo down the middle? Argument settled.
Walcott’s hat trick was, after all, just divine.
Giroud almost grabbed a hat trick of his own before the final whistle went to huge applause.
The scoreline flattered us to some degree but there were many pluses to take from this game: we seem to have rediscovered our verve in front of goal; we had enough mental strength to not get deflated by three times giving up the lead; and, strangely, we did not let Newcastle create much of danger – preferring, instead, to do the dirty work for them ourselves.
One very striking figure from the match statistics was that we had only 45% possession, Toon having 55%. This is very unusual for Arsenal but I wonder if it points to a deliberate tactic. If we are going to play with Theo Walcott as our front man our greatest weapon is his speed in attack. In that case it makes sense to concede ground to the opposition, let them come on to us and hit them on the break as Wenger’s early (successful) teams used to do.
All in all, a great game in which Newcastle very much played their part.
Szczesny: had no chance with any of the goals and dealt well with the other Newcastle efforts (shots and crosses). A couple of times he put us under pressure by passing to defenders who were clearly marked. He needs to improve this aspect of his game. 7
Sagna: perhaps the uncertainty over his future is affecting his game. He seems a bit out of sorts and was given a torrid time by Obertan. Was partially responsible for all three Newcastle goals. 5
Koscielny: filled in very well for Mertesacker. A typical Kozzer showing, full of commitment and effort. 7
Vermaelen: also had a solid game – he seems to have got over his bad patch. However, as GiE pointed out in comments yesterday, what was he doing letting Gibbs get drawn into marking a big centre forward like Ba? 7
Gibbs: overall a good game with some good attacking play and an assist, but he was woefully at fault for Newcastle’s third and partly at fault for their second. Still seems like a youngster who is learning on the job at times. 6
Arteta: like the rest of our midfield he got the runaround when we slackened off after taking the lead in the first half, but otherwise his game was as effective as we have come to expect. Much of his work is unspectacular and (I suspect) unnoticed by some fans. 7
Wilshere: fine game by the captain-in-waiting. He drives us forward every time he gets the ball and his run and chip for the Podolski goal were outstanding (LB said the chip reminded him of Brady, which is high praise indeed). He loses half a point for giving away Newcastle’s first goal by trying to dodge the ball. 7.5
Cazorla: always a joy to wacth, Santi made one and was unlucky not to get on the score sheet himself. He was a thorn in the Newcastle side all the time he was on the pitch. 8
Podolski: a really good game from the German, full of industry, commitment and strength. His goal showed a great poacher’s instinct and he made Theo’s first. 8
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Oxo is getting slowly better with each game. He took his goal very well and was heavily involved until subbed off for Giroud. His passing is occasionally a bit loose, but he will put that right in due course. 7
Walcott: couldn’t really have done anything more to prove his case for a central striker’s berth. Great hat trick, of which the highest compliment I can pay is that Thierry Henry would have been pleased with any of those goals. I have always rated Theo’s finishing and what I liked most about his goals was the composure he showed in putting the ball in exactly the spot where it could not be saved. His third also gave the lie to the criticism that he can’t dribble. Yes, he made some mistakes too, but all strikers do. What’s clear is that Theo is becoming a huge asset – someone who can be deadly as a main striker, or as a wide man. It would be a crying shame if we lose him just as he’s is reaching the fulfillment of his potential. 9 MoTM
Giroud: I love this player. His cameo was almost perfect (and would have been if he had converted the chance to get a hat trick). 8.5
Ramsey: another good, tidy appearance from Aaron. 7
Coquelin: also tidy, although one unforced loose pass almost put us in trouble. 6.5