Newcastle United 0 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Koscielny (52)
“I’d like to say it’s a shame [that Tottenham didn't qualify to Champions League] – but it’s not really!”
Theo Walcott’s words encapsulated the afternoon.
Yesterday was only ever about results, the performance was secondary, as it has been since a gap of seven points emerged following defeat at White Hart Lane.
Laurent Koscielny’s close-range finish from Walcott’s free-kick separated the two sides. For all of Newcastle’s efforts in the first half, Arsenal’s calm endeavours proved more fruitful. The performance mirrored much of the run of matches which garnered 26 points out of a possible 30; Arsenal were controlled without being entirely dominant. Their hosts forged some clear opportunities but it is naïve to expect a win where your opponent does not have the opportunity to score. I can only recall openings for Cisse, twice in ten first-half minutes he might have reasonably been expected to find the target. In both instances, Szczesny was not troubled to make a save. Cabaye forced the only save of note as Newcastle ran out of ideas and steam.
By contrast, Arsenal came closest to changing the scoreline. Mertesacker, Koscielny and Cazorla all had their moments in front of goal whilst Walcott almost put the result beyond doubt, striking the woodwork with Harper well beaten. Giroud, with the last meaningful moment before the final whistle. An away win with a sensible, controlled performance on a day when three points had to be attained.
Central to victory was a defensive performance, built upon by unity of endeavour in midfield and defence. Koscielny and Mertesacker are rightly garnering praise but it is not a two-man job; they rely on the protection of the trio in front of them, augmented by the work of colleagues on either flank. Credit to Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey who worked hard when the gamble of Mikel Arteta’s inclusion back-fired with the Spaniard had to be withdrawn as his injury flared once more.
But the collective worked hard, the forwards pressed to offer breathing space to the defence. It was not a match of stellar performances, it was obdurate. Attacking flair has been tempered by pragmatism, pressure consistently applied to the opponents. Arsenal have always pushed opponents backwards from the front but sporadically during games; at times before Christmas, it seemed to easy for the ball to bypass the forward line as pressure was exerted on the defence. Problem solved for the moment.
The media immediately focussed on celebrating fourth place. That misses the point, finishing above Tottenham is guaranteed to bring a smile in its own right but more importantly to the club, Champions League football upon successful negotiation of the qualifying round.
Arsène was quick to praise the mental strength of the team,
In the last three months, I believe we have been remarkably consistent. We won every away game so it’s a good springboard for next season, to transfer that belief into the start of next season.
He needs that and has space in the squad to fill. Departures will, you sense, be plentiful this Summer but not in the manner of previous windows, not for key personnel. Indeed, you could argue that one of the fundamental reasons for the run that closed out the season was that there is no one player who is more important than the others; a genuine team rather than an assembly of star and supporting cast.
In a week when fantasy came into football, little wonder that Arsène sought to manage expectations,
There are many clubs out there with a lot of money so the competition is very hard. There’s not as much talent as money today in football.
There is a tangible sense of relief at Arsenal have reached the minimum target set by the manager at the start of the season. The run since back-to-back defeats against Chelsea and Manchester City has been phenomenal; twelve wins and three draws to accompany the reverse at White Hart Lane. It shows what the team is capable of achieving under pressure, the trick is to keep that going when the new season starts in August. The concern is that with arrivals and departures, we will be back to square one, inconsistency reigning when pushing on should happen. That after all, is often held up as the reason for the poor form before Christmas. Not one, I add, that I subscribe to so abject were some of the performances. That was something more deep-rooted than ‘getting to know you‘.
As it is, social diaries for next season can be arranged with the knowledge that Thursday night is free.