Arsenal forced to fight at Newcastle but hang on for vital win
NEWCASTLE, England -- Three thoughts on Arsenal's 2-1 win vs. Newcastle in the Premier League.
1. Arsenal bounce back
Arsenal have become somewhat predictable, both in terms of their seasons as a whole and their individual matches. If the midweek 2-0 victory in Monaco -- "brave," yet not sufficient for them to qualify -- was classic Champions League Arsenal, this was classic Premier League Arsenal.
You can effectively copy and paste the opening paragraphs from a report of the recent victory at QPR as, yet again, they made a sluggish start and then scored a couple of goals in quick succession, before suffering an unexpected concession and enduring a needless period of nervousness in the second half.
Eventually the victory was secured, of course, and so again Arsene Wenger will be able to praise Arsenal's courage in "bouncing back" from the midweek disappointment (even if it was technically a victory in France). It is interesting, however, that a team generally so prone to massive swings of confidence have developed this ability, which is probably why their manager mentions it so regularly.
This wasn't a particularly impressive performance, with Arsenal's back line worried by the pace of Ayoze Perez, and often under pressure because David Ospina was unconvincing when coming out to claim set pieces.
Holding midfielder Francis Coquelin, meanwhile, looked commanding when Arsenal were in possession, but was less effective when they were on the back foot, and Wenger introduced Mathieu Flamini to sit alongside him for the remaining 20 minutes.
Never before this season, though, have Arsenal looked so comfortable in terms of the league table. With at least one of fourth-placed Manchester United and fifth-placed Liverpool set to drop points at Anfield tomorrow, Gunners fans can look forward to Champions League football yet again.
2. More goals for Giroud
The statistics suggested this was a game for Olivier Giroud, and the Frenchman duly responded -- he has now scored eight goals in his last nine league games, and eight in six against Newcastle.
Giroud put Arsenal ahead midway through the first half after a series of free kicks down the right flank. Alexis Sanchez went close from the first before Newcastle defended the second one poorly, with Moussa Sissoko making a mess of his clearance under no pressure.
Those were the warning signs, and Arsenal pounced from their third opportunity in this situation. Santi Cazorla's curling free kick was nodded on by Danny Welbeck, and Giroud reacted quickly to divert the ball past Tim Krul and into the corner with his knee -- the left one, inevitably.
As is frequently the case with Arsenal, the second followed quickly -- just four minutes later. It was another Cazorla set piece from the right, although this time the move was even simpler: the Spaniard's outswinging corner was perfectly placed onto Giroud's head, and the striker outmuscled Mike Williamson to head into the far corner.
Giroud's other major quality, his expert link play, was also evident. He nearly played in Aaron Ramsey at 0-0 with a wonderful back-heel that was intercepted but nevertheless drew gasps from the Arsenal fans located high up in the Leazes End, at the other end of the stadium.
Ramsey's galloping forward runs are perfect for combination play with the striker, as the duo demonstrated in last weekend's 3-0 victory over West Ham, and the Welshman had a decent chance shortly after the back-heel, too, again from a Giroud pass, but he took a heavy touch when attempting to round Krul.
Giroud had a less happy second half as Newcastle repeatedly sandwiched him when he challenged for aerial balls, with Vurnon Anita in front and Williamson behind. Twice he received medical attention after these challenges, prompting howls of anger from the home support, and he was unable to relieve the pressure by holding up the ball.
Nevertheless, he was once again Arsenal's match winner and is unquestionably their key player at present.
3. Newcastle valiant in defeat
This is yet another Newcastle season that is over before Easter. Out of the cup competitions, nowhere near the European slots and some way clear of relegation -- largely thanks to five consecutive victories in October and November -- it has become a familiar feeling.
However, the frustrating thing for Magpies fans, over 50,000 of whom were in attendance at St James' Park again, is that Newcastle are doing little to build for next season.
Current manager John Carver will not be in charge, the squad might change significantly, and, on a wider note, there's a huge doubt about whether Newcastle can realistically improve while Mike Ashley remains as owner. Sadly, recent matches simply seem pointless.
With Fabricio Coloccini's three-game suspension particularly damaging as Newcastle already had an injury crisis at centre-back, Daryl Janmaat was forced to fill in centrally, a position he'd never previously played (aside from when deputising after Coloccini's red card last weekend at Everton), and the defence rarely looked settled, especially with Jack Colback forced to play at left-back.
There were also problems further forward: Papiss Cisse is serving a long ban for spitting, although Perez performed excellently, running the left-hand channel as he'd done effectively against Chelsea in a 2-1 win in December.
In midfield, meanwhile, it was bizarre to see Yoan Gouffran playing as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3, with Remy Cabella out on the right. Gouffran adapted manfully but, when he and Sissoko pushed forward, holding man Anita was often exposed
Newcastle started the second half well, however: Cabella's good work down the right flank was followed by a low cut-back and an assured finish from Sissoko, before Perez twice went close with good individual efforts.
Set pieces piled the pressure on Arsenal and, with four minutes remaining, Perez's twice-deflected shot forced Ospina into a desperate save with his feet. The hosts' second-half performance was surprisingly encouraging.
Yet these supporters still deserve more, and they haven't witnessed a home league victory by more than one goal all season. Spirited displays against the big boys are fine, but in the long term Newcastle must have loftier ambitions.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.