Goals, missed chances, saved penalty, shocking referee and another three points for the Arsenal
I know we have a very eventful match to dissect, but I want to start with news that will undoubtedly impact the rest of our season. Theo Walcott’s knee scan was negative for ligament or cartilage damage. The knee is swollen but it looks as though he will not miss much time. Perhaps he will be ready for Manchester City after the international break. I’m not one for gloating but I so rarely get anything right that I might just indulge this time. Watching Wenger’s press conference on friday I simply could not believe that the Walcott injury was serious. As I said in Friday’s blog, Arsene’s expression wasn’t gloomy enough and his suggestion that Walcott “could” miss the international matches was reason for optimism.
Warning: this next paragraph contains wild and outrageous claims.
I love a good conspiray theory, so tell me what you think of this one. Walcott was injured during his last tour of international duty. Whil he was away, the team really struggled. This week he was picked for the Under-21 team, which I am certain did not impress Arsene Wenger. Walcott has said how excited he is to be back in the Arsenal team for the run-in. Wouldn’t it just be wonderful if Wenger fabricated this knee injury to keep Walcott out of the U-21 team without causing a controversy. He has been a huge lift to the team since his return and will be desperately needed in Europe. The injury is bizarre to say the least. After all, Theo injured himself while walking after practice and I haven’t seen a single picture or video clip of the injured knee. So start spreading the rumor now (while remembering that it’s absurd): “Theo Walcott’s injury is a clever ruse to keep him out of international duty and ready to play for Arsenal.”
Okay, that was fun. Now we can get back to the results on the pitch.
Had Arsenal failed to take all three points from Newcastle today, this could have been the most frustrating blog I have ever written. There were so many moments in this match that made me want to pull my hair out that I can only thank my lucky stars that we prevailed. Let’s try to cover it all, as daunting as it seems.
For starters, I was perfectly happy with the starting XI today. Frankly, there wasn’t much mystery about the lineup beyond the two central midfielders. In this episode of “lesser-of-all-evils” Wenger chose Denilson and Diaby. Right now Arsene seems to be rotating Song, Diaby and Denilson through the midfield to get some experience for each. For my money, Diaby and Song are making the most of the opportunity. Denilson just hasn’t shown the creative quality or the defensive awareness to justify a starting midfield spot for the big games. Once Cesc returns, it could be very difficult for Denilson to find his way back into the team.
The big beneficiary of his recent playing time is Song. A few weeks ago I was writing him off as a waste of perfectly good football boots and I was certain that he wouldn’t see playing time with the return of our first choice midfielders. But Song has proved me (and almost everyone else) wrong by gaining in confidence and showing dramatic improvement in his game. He’s probably competing against Diaby for the right to pair with Fabregas against Manchester City. (Now that I’m on record on this subject, Wenger will probably start Denilson in every match for the rest of the season. I’m convinced he does this to us on purpose.)
Once again, Arsenal started the match slowly today. If this team could put two halves of football together, they would be very formidable indeed. Our slow start was down to an inability to keep posession. The passing was truly uninspired. For long stretches of the first half I wondered if Robin Van Persie had forgotten to come out of the dressing room. Soon, we were punished for our lethargy when referee Mark Halsey opted to add some spice to the match by awarding Newcastle an absurd penalty. A few minutes earlier Newcastle had a shout for a penalty from some clumsy play by Nasri and some cowardly diving by Damien Duff. As the television commentators observed, the penalty award may well have been a case of “two half-penalites making a whole.” Given our recent run of form with penalties, it was almost unsurprising to see Almunia save comfortably from Martins decent, but unconvincing, effort low and to the keeper’s left. It’s a shame that Almunia receives so little credit outside the club. He started the season capably but has really grown into a quality Premier League ‘keeper. (And I dare say, better than any ‘keeper currently playing for the Three Lions.)
After the penalty, Arsenal’s game picked up slightly. We were never at our flowing best but the chances started to come our way. Some of the missed opportunities were really shameful. Van Persie was stopped point-blank by a last-minute Taylor block and by Newcastle ‘keeper, Harper. Arshavin skimmed the crossbar with his 25-yard rocket and William Gallas just barely mistimed his jump on a great opportunity for an easy header. Overall, the chances were there, but Arsenal were not very good in the first half and would have been fortunate to be in front.
The Second half was a completely different story as it has been lately. Arsenal came out with purpose and repeatedly but the Newcastle defense under pressure. (Arshavin is really growing into the team and his presence feels like a new signing… Wait a minute… Arshavin isn’t “like a new signing.” He IS a new signing. Now I see the difference between the two. Arsene Wenger should take note. Although the return of Fabregas will feel “like a new signing.” Enough of that.)
Gael Clichy won a free kick on the left side of midfield, but it required Taylor twice trying to remove Clichy’s head for Halsey to award it. Then, typically, it was Arshavin’s turn to supply the quality delivering the perfectly flighted ball into the box. However, it still required a sublime, back-to-goal header from Bendtner to open the scoring. A great moment in the match…for about 40 seconds. I was still calculating our point distance from Manchester United when Obafemi Martins equalised. Sagna’s header lacked distance and Gallas fluffed his clearance allowing Martins to take one clinical touch to put the ball in the lower corner. Poor defending, but a quality touch by Martins. From that moment, it was the most one-sided match you will see for a while.
Diaby scored an excellent goal on a one-two with Van Persie that split the defense in half. It was reminiscent of Viera but I’m sure that’s the easiest and laziest comparison in the world. Diaby really came into this match after 30 minutes and was easily a candidate for man of the match along with Nasri and Arshavin. Nasri was next to score after another nice exchange with Van Persie found him some space in the box, and his low finish was pure class. Both Diaby and Nasri deserved a goal from the quality of their play today.
Arsenal took control of the match for the last 25 or 30 minutes in a way they haven’t done often enough this season. We had huges stretches of possession and, at times, our passing and movement were mesmeric. The goals were both magnificent and even the missed chances came from wonderful passing moves. Everyone played a part. There were misses galore from Van Persie and Bendtner. Diaby hit a post. Even Denilson saw a shot saved. (It was really his only bright moment.) But by that point, the result was decided.
The second half was mostly a joy to watch. At times the passing was vintage Arsenal and Newcastle looked well beaten with 20 minutes to spare. Naturally they carved out a few half-chances, but they never looked like getting back into the match. It’s really a shame that we didn’t put a few more past Harper today. Some of the chances were begging to be put away and it could easily have been 5 or 6 with just a little more composure in the final moment. The missed opportunities really are a little concerning. Although we won comfortably, some of our most disappointing nil-nil scorelines this season were the result of poor finishing and missed chances. Against the big clubs, in the big games, we will certainly need to take the chances when they arrive.
Today Van Persie was guilty of some inexplicable misses. It’s hard to criticize a player who finishes with two beautiful assists, but it’s probably fair to say those were just about the only things that RVP did right today. His form isn’t great at the moment and there’s no getting around it. But if we can win comfortably while he misses chances, just think what we can do when he returns to his January form. For me, the most worrying moment came late in the match. Van Persie received the ball from Diaby on a counter attack and Bendtner was as open as a player can be, with nothing but grass between him and ‘keeper. Van Persie did not deliver the easy pass, opting instead to take on two defenders alone. At the time, it looked like a particularly selfish bit of play from Robin. Hopefully this moment was down to poor execution rather than a sign of negativity developing between the two strikers.
Overall it was a good team performance today and a nice game for a few individuals that have been struggling. Gael Clichy looked really sharp defensively and as dangerous as ever going forward. It was such a relief to see him playing this way after a period of indifferent form. I hate to suggest that he’s not properly motivated at the club, but he’s in a real fight for the France left-back position with Patrice Evra and this performance may have been statement to the FFF. Diaby, who also had a wonderful match, has been called up to the France national team and that may have given him a little extra spring in his step today. Obviously, it was nice to see Bendtner get the opening goal. Although it didn’t seem to stop him from missing his fair share of chances, including a relatively easy back-post header, I’m sure he felt a little weight off his shoulders when the ball flew into the net.
The most important point is that Arsenal came away with the win today and an dominant second-half performance. Now we wait and watch as Liverpool can help us open a gap with Aston Villa for fourth place. I remember early in the season we went into the international break on the heels of a 1-1 draw with Sunderland and it was a dreadful wait until the next match. This is the perfect sending off for the players and we can only hope they return with the desire to continue their current form. Captain Cesc’s return should ensure that the team are properly focused when proper football resumes.
Today’s match did feature another atrocious performance from a Premier League referee. Mark Halsey hardly got a decision right during the entire match. His penalty decision was so soft, that the television announcers were unsure what was happening. Almunia was guilty of little more than submitting to gravity. Worse, it seems that Halsey committed the cardinal sin of awarding the “make-up penalty” in return for the Damien Duff penalty shout a few minutes earlier that he had properly turned down.
But Halsey’s failure to book Newcastle for bad tackles was even more egregious than the penalty call. At one point I thought Newcastle were filming a sequel to the movie “Unbreakable,” entitled “Unbookable.” The failure to book some of the Newcastle players was inexplicable. Taylor could have been sent of on multiple occasions. Gael Clichy almost had his head pulled off twice on the same play, and Arshavin got a world-class forearm shiver right to his face. I can forgive the referee if he doesn’t see the battery, but he called a foul on the play. It was probably a red card offense. What was worse was listening to the television commentators trying to explain that Arshavin was hit in the face because he is short. Having been a lawyer at one time in my life, I am almost certain that there is no such defense to battery. “I’m sorry officer, but I couldn’t avoid hitting this man in the face. He’s just too damn short.” You have to love Arshavin though. He hops right back up and gets on the with the game. At his stature, I’m sure he learned a long time ago that you mustn’t let the opposition believe they can bully you. (Although he may have spent some time jammed inside a locker during high-school.) It was a dreadful match for Halsey and he’s very fortunate that he didn’t impact the outcome or the health of any Arsenal players.
Today’s results mean that Arsenal are in decent position for fourth, and have a faint hope of something greater. It also means that Newcastle may well be relegated at season’s end but we hardly have time to worry about their lot. The only sad aspect of our victory today, is that it helps Hull City in their fight against relegation. We’ll just have to trust Karma on that one. All-in-all watching Arsenal play football has become fun again. It’s no longer the agonizing, nail-biting, shout at the television, exercise in frustration that it had become in February. Now the squad is coming close to the elusive “full fitness.” I am so excited to see Cesc back in the lineup I can hardly control myself. His impending return promises to make the “interlull” feel that much longer and more depressing. We’ll just have to get through it together.