If the Boxing Day win at West Ham was all about Arsenal’s relentless attacking, creativity and ability to create chances, Sunday’s win at Newcastle was all about the defensive stability of the team and the willingness to dig in and get the job done when things aren’t clicking going forward. These two festive away games have featured two different performances, two vital wins and six crucial points that mean Arsenal finish 2013 on top of the Premier League table.
Both wins have required Arsenal to show Arsene Wenger’s heralded ‘mental strength’, but it has been shown in different ways. To win two matches in varied styles shows that this Arsenal team are different to previous years. If plan A isn’t working, there is a plan B. In tight matches, the defence can now be trusted to keep the opposition out, knowing it just needs one attack to work to win the game.
Whilst the West Ham game had been quite open and enjoyable to watch, the trip to Newcastle wasn’t pretty viewing for the majority of the game, but in many ways is more satisfying to look back on. The Toon have been in good form and looked to disrupt Arsenal at every turn. Chiek Tiote spent most of the game doing his upmost to get a yellow card but referee Lee Probert declined to caution him despite many fouls. Mike Williamson went in with a nasty over-the-top challenge on Giroud and Yohan Cabaye was quick to make challenges in the middle of the pitch. However with the likes of Sagna, Mertesacker, Flamini, Rosicky and Giroud, this Arsenal team are more street-wise. They gave as good as they got in the physical battle and wouldn’t let Newcastle bully the Gunners. Rather than feeling sorry for themselves for getting kicked and not getting free-kick decisions, Arsenal now can give a little back and not let physical confrontations intimidate them.
When the intricate passing loves aren’t coming off, as they weren’t at St James’ Park, there are other routes to goal for the Gunners. The winner came from a set-piece with Theo Walcott’s cross being glanced in by the head of Olivier Giroud. Walcott’s dead-ball delivery is definitely improving, whilst Giroud’s physical presence up front means Arsenal are dangerous from set-pieces. He attacked the ball well and scored a goal that he desperately needed for his confidence. It’ll also help him that he didn’t just score, for example, the fourth goal of a 4-0 win, but he scored a vital winning goal.
Having played so well against West Ham, it was a shame to see Santi Cazorla struggle again, but his performance was endemic of most of Arsenal’s attackers. Wilshere’s passing was slightly off and there wasn’t much space for Walcott to exploit in behind the Newcastle defence. Before Arsenal scored, the game seemed to be crying out for the Gunners to widen their play and adjust the balance of the team by bringing on Lukas Podolski on the left, but after scoring the opening goal, Arsene Wenger was happy to hold what the team had. Initially, I thought he’d gone more defensive too early, but it’s a sign of the trust he now has in the defence that he thought they’d be able to see the game out without too many problems.
For a team that were missing their top scorer and record signing, it wasn’t likely to be the most fluid performance, but it was one that showed the strength in the Arsenal squad. To be able to bring in the likes of Wilshere and Rosicky for Ramsey and Ozil is a luxury the Gunners haven’t had in recent seasons. Mikel Arteta was able to have a rest as well with Mathieu Flamini giving a disciplined and determined performance in front of the back four. With Thomas Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal also missing with illness and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain still out, the Arsenal squad isn’t being as stretched as it would have been in previous seasons. Even when Kieran Gibbs went off injured, Flamini rekindled the spirit of 2006 by doing a job at left back.
Considering that Newcastle did exert a lot of pressure late on, the closest they came to scoring was when Wojciech Szczesny kicked the ball into Loic Remy’s face before seeing the ball dribble wide. Otherwise, Arsenal’s defence saw the game out superbly with Per Mertesacker in particular winning numerous headers and making important clearances. Despite the earlier mistake, Szczensy came up with an important punch clear in injury time when under pressure from Tim Krul.
The was a concern that the six goals conceded at Manchester City could have been the start of a defensive decline, but it was just a blip as the Gunners have only conceded one goal in three games since, and that came from a goalkeeping error from Szczesny. Two consecutive away wins after four winless matches show this team can respond to disappointments and can respond to pressure after Liverpool and Manchester City had momentarily gone past them in the table.
A better performance would have made it an easier game to watch, but with games coming thick and fast the result was all that mattered against Newcastle. You get nothing for being top at the end of a calendar year, or for gaining the most Premier League points in 2013, but it shows that Arsenal can be consistent over a long period of time. Arsenal have some steel, have a strong back bone and have a plan B. It bodes well for 2014.