If Arsenal ever decide to branch out into the movie business, there is a queue building for the lead role in their version of Fungus The Bogeyman with Lee Probert joining Mike Dean as aspiring actors. The continued unpunished assaults by Tiote signalled not corruption but officials who remain ensconced in the media romanticism of the plucky underdog nobly fighting to issue bloodied noses to the richer clubs. The PGMO are aloof not through secrecy but due to lacking the wit to present their case. After all, how many times, how many ways can you admit that a referee made inconsistent and wrong decisions? As coaches evolve playing styles and entice gifted technical players to these shores, try to coax more native talent through the ranks, referees are firmly entranced by the traditional English game. Probert was even-handed though, poor decision-making penalised both sides. Is it coaches of officials who hold back progress? It is a mix of both I fancy, with managers who instruct players to ‘disrupt’ the opposition as culpable as referees who fail to punish miscreants whose numerous moments of foul play ought to bring censure.
Alan Pardew evoked memories of his West Ham sides whose attempts to kick their way to victory against Arsenal. As before it ended in failure with Olivier Giroud adding the deftest of touches to settle matters. In execution the header was reminiscent of Alan Smith’s opener at Anfield. The Frenchman very much in that mould; unselfish and hard-working, capable of twenty goals a season but never given quite considered – or being – world-class. Just an honest pro, a good central striker for others to feed off. Arsène was quick to accentuate the positives Giroud brings to the side, his height and robustness bringing an alternative to “a team that is a bit short, lightweight and more focused on mobility and technical movement“. The manager’s heart would have been in his mouth when the Frenchman appeared to turn his ankle when he picked up a booking for taking retribution on Tiote. Options in such a match were short Podolski presumably spared not through tiredness but endangerment, electing to employ Ronin’s capabilities in this area.
Wenger believes this performance an example of the resilience the squad has developed, maturity as he put it when questioned on whether it had been missing previously. Arguably, this was the poorest footballing performance against the most dogged of opponents in the last week’s three matches. To emerge with seven points is indeed creditable and if we are honest, the best outcome expected. Returning to the top of the table, to see in the New Year as leaders, is probably due reward for the accumulation of points in 2013. No trophies are yet awarded for such acclaim, something of which Arsène is acutely aware.
Changes were made, some expected, others rumoured. Laurent Koscielny resumed his partnership with Per Mertesacker and the pair were pivotal in closing out the game as Arsenal retreated into themselves with the final whistle approaching. It is a dangerous game to play, one which relies in equal measure discipline, diligence and luck. Fortune favouring the brave you might argue but it makes for nervous moments until the inability of your opponents to make the most of the openings which may arise. When you have a solid pillar like Mertesacker in the centre, it is understandable why such tactics are employed. The German has been immense this season, at the heart of everything of good defensively thus far; today was no different.
Earlier in the half, Newcastle had enjoyed some freedom on the Arsenal left, Kieran Gibbs left exposed in the same way Nacho Monreal was at Eastlands, as Rosicky and Cazorla sought to impose their creative will on proceedings. On the right, the orthodoxy of Theo Walcott’s play offered stability to complement Bacary Sagna’s experience. Mesut Özil’s absence combined with Mikel Arteta being rotated from the starting XI left the sense Arsène expected the match Arsenal got with the inclusion of Flamini and Wilshere. The former enjoys such dogged battles but the latter subdued his attacking play with disciplined defensive work.
It left the visitors somewhat disjointed at times but reflection on previous campaigns tells us that winning ugly is a necessary part of success. It cannot be the platform on its own, it must be supported by good performances more often than not and frankly, all the while maximum points are being picked up, is there much about which to be concerned? The frequency of matches this fortnight predicates the belief that Arsenal must pick up points and worry about how they play when games become a weekly matter.
Of course, being Arsenal the moments of brilliance were matched with their heart-stopping opposites. The lead could – should – have been doubled; Walcott’s effort was chested onto the crossbar when it should have probably been in the net whilst Giroud will feel he should have done better with the rebound. Had Carl Jenkinson been more alert, not caught in two minds, whatever, he would have taken the throw-in quicker and set Nicklas Bendtner free. Yeah. I would suggest in those circumstances criticism of the young right back is probably misplaced. The same for Szczesny; too much focus on one kick, the ferocity of which was underplayed and undervalued, rather than commending the Pole for producing vital interventions as Newcastle exerted more pressure with the match in its final stages.
The volatility of the Premier League is reflected in the current positions. Christmas leaders, Liverpool, are six points adrift. Despite Arsenal’s form over the last half-a-dozen games, Manchester United are three points further behind than they were after the two sides met at Old Trafford in November. Leadership is going to change hands between now and the end of the season, most likely on several occasions not solely related to broadcasters messing with the kick-off times. It is a nice-to-have, something which boosts confidence and belief in the players but not something which defines the season until the final whistle at the end of the last fixture. It’s something to enjoy for us and that is what we should do whilst it lasts.