The second part of The Arsenal’s away trilogy ended in a score draw at the Magpies. In all honesty it was probably a fair result, but the manner in which we conceded still rankles a bit.
Prior to the game it was announced that the Flamster had joined the worrying increasing injury list. Neither Alex nor Cesc had recovered either, so we were shorn of three-quarters of our first-choice midfield, not to mention the continued absence of Robin. At the best of times a trip to Newcastle is always difficult, let alone with half our attacking options missing, so I was bemused at the (over) confidence shown by Gooners in the lead up to the game. The lineup was pretty much as expected with the usual back five, Diarra and Gilberto shielding them, and then Rosicky, Eboue and Eduardo offering support to Ade. The main question was how they would line up – would Eduardo play left of a five-man midfield with Rosicky conducting in the hole? Or would the Crozilian be restored to his favoured striking position?
As they kicked off I was pleasantly surprised to see Eduardo join Ade in attack. Although this may have been detrimental to the fluidity of the side, it would provide more cover for Clichy at left-back as Rosicky is more comfortable tracking back. And what a start it was. Not even five minutes had elapsed when N’Zogbia’s clearance fell straight to the feet of Eboue on the right touchline. He flighted in a brilliant ball (much like Bendtner’s to Eduardo last week in Seville) and Ade controlled it on his chest and volleyed it into the roof of the net, bang! 1-0 to The Arsenal and we hadn’t even broken sweat.
But those expecting that goal to be the start of a procession were sadly mistaken, for this was a Sam Allardyce team after all. They may capitulate against the Mancs and the Scousers, but any team Allardyce is in charge of would never do so against us, he simply wouldn’t stand for it. It was almost as if we were watching Bolton actually, everytime they won a throw in our half it was launched forward to Kevin Davies…I mean, Alan Smith. Smith himself then launched into Willy Gallas with the ball nowhere in sight. I was screaming blue murder but amazingly the ref didn’t do anything about it, and the Sky commentators simply dismissed it as "aggression". Aggression my arse, there is aggression and then there is assault. But far be it from Sky to ever say a bad word about an English player…
As perverse as it sounds, we may have scored too early. With the early goal the onus was always on the home side to come back into it, and they made a decent fist of it. In days gone by this would play straight into our hands as we could kill them on the counter, but this team is more methodical and meticulous. So with Newcastle harrying and chasing we never built up any decent momentum or possession, which was a shame. We had very little joy attacking-wise for the remainder of the half, but when we did it came through Ade. The first occasion was when Diarra had a shot from 30-yards that ricocheted off the Togonator but unfortunately it ricocheted too far. The second was when he picked up the ball on the halfway line in the inside left channel, beat two men but his attempted cross was blocked by the defender. In truth I felt this was a wasted opportunity because Ade could have played Eduardo in at any time during his run but ignored the option. The resulting corner fell to the feet of Gilberto at the back-post but he volleyed miles wide.
Newcastle were posing a definite threat down the other end, especially from long throws and corners. On 35 minutes they had a corner from the right that found the head of Steven Taylor. Although he was sandwiched between two players he managed to direct his effort goalwards but was matched by a great save from Almunia to tip it onto the post. Diarra was on the line and would probably have blocked it but little was Almunia to know about that as he flung himself to his right. The nitpickers may comment that he got caught a bit in no-man’s land when the corner came in but he more than redeemed himself with the save. It was interesting to note that by this time, Rosicky and Eduardo had switched positions, a sure sign that Le Boss was not happy with the lack of quality possession in midfield which had caused the team to go longer to Ade. The remainder of the half continued with Newcastle pressure until the very end when Arsenal sensed a second goal. Once again it was Ade in thick of the action as he made a nuisance of himself at corners. And then there was a moment at the death which I found inexplicable: Ade seemed to be racing through on goal down the left with support infield, but then the ref brought play back for an off-the-ball foul by Diarra on Nicky Butt. Huh? I thought off-the-ball occurrences were meant to be dealt with after the ball was dead? Either way, it was a bullshit decision from referee Homer Simpson as Diarra and Butt had a tangle of legs at the very worst.
The second-half began in much the same vein as Newcastle pressured for the equaliser with Arsenal having a sprinkling of opportunities at the other end without ever really clicking. How we missed Cesc and Alex, like I said recently, as long as we have at least two from Cesc, Alex and Tomas on the field then our football tends to sparkle. With just one it is hard for them to orchestrate the game on their own. It was Tomas who sent down the right channel on 50 minutes but although the Ivorian’s shot was powerful it was too straight to test Shay Given.
Just like Ashley Young on Saturday, James Milner was a constant thorn in our side down the left-wing. He didn’t skin Sagna once, but he didn’t need to because all he did was get a yard of space and then whip it into the box. This game was the most I had seen Almunia involved in for ages, hardly five minutes would pass without him having to claim a cross. If only he’d have claimed the next one. Newcastle won a free-kick pretty straight and midway in our half and flighted the ball into the mass of players at the edge of the box. Sanga, I think, got a flick on which caused havoc and Almunia parried it away from the danger zone. Ade gave chase but oh-so frustratingly instead of launching it into orbit he decided to play it down the line to Eduardo who had two men breathing down his neck. The Crozilian lost it and the ball was crossed in from the right, eventually finding Taylor at the back-post who swivelled and shot low and hard. With Almunia beaten the ball hit the inside of the post and into the back of the net. Crap. Why didn’t Ade just smack it? This was one of a few occasions during the game where I felt we tried to be a little to cute in the defensive third and we paid the ultimate price for it. When it comes off and we manage to emerge with the ball from a tight spot then it is all sweetness and light (and to be fair, it happens more often than not), but when it goes wrong it is a sickener. However you can’t say that it hadn’t been on the cards, it’s just a shame that we made it easier for them by giving it away so cheaply.
Like I said before, with the midfield not functioning fluently we had a tendency to look longer to Ade. This tactic was supplemented with the introduction of Nicklas Bendtner for the quiet Eduardo with a quarter of the game remaining. Once again I had sympathy for Eduardo – the majority of his starts have come in extremely unfavourable matches such as here, away to Blackburn and away to Sevilla. Bendtner’s arrival gave a slight extra impetus to the team and we managed to piece together a few more attacks that came to nothing. Newcastle had decided to shoot from distance more in the second-half as well, as evidenced by long-range efforts from N’Zogbia and Geremi. They also introduced Mark Viduka off the bench – a player who gave me nightmares as I recall him scoring the winner in May 2003 for Leeds to end our hopes of retaining our title.
In the last ten minutes we did threaten a bit more but created nothing concrete. There were a few occasions were final decision went slightly awry such as Ade playing a neat one-two with Tomas on the edge of the box but then overrunning the ball and Tomas square ball aimed for Nicklas being cut out. It didn’t look like we’d manufacture an undeserved winner, even our set-piece delivery was useless as usual. Then as injury time approached Viduka managed to turn on the edge of the box and unleash a drive that took a nick of Willy and sailed over the bar for a corner. This was the first of FOUR consecutive corners, which proved to be ah heart-stopping couple of minutes for Gooner. Thankfully it wasn’t heartbreaking though as we survived them, although we looked decidedly dodgy and had to thank Eboue for a late intervention to stop Taylor grabbing a winner from inside the six-yard box. After the flurry of corners had come to pass on two occasions we could have free-kicks as first Ade was pushed off the ball and second time he was obstructed when chasing a backpass. However Homer Simpson was never gonna give this. So it was a massive surprise when, with a minute of injury time remaining, he gave us a free-kick in the Newcastle half. Eboue crossed it in Given punched it away and that was the end of that.
All in all it was a mixed result, especially given the start we got. And although it is hard to say that we deserved the victory, the manner in which we conceded leaves a bitter taste in the mouth because it could so easily have been avoided. In the end I personally was content to come away with a draw as St. James’s Park has not traditionally been a good hunting ground for us and lest we forget we were missing three of our most creative forces. Can you imagine the Mancs without Rooney, Scholes, Ronaldo and Hargreaves? For Rooney read Robin, for Scholes read Cesc, for Ronaldo read Hleb and for Hargreaves read Flamini. See what I mean?
Its difficult to choose a Top Gun as with such an average team performance no one player stood head and shoulders above another. Ade could have got it with his brilliant goal but that was soured by his part in the Magpie’s equaliser. At a push I’d have to give it Almunia because without his handling we may well have lost this game. On the flip side, I have to say there were a number of players off their game: Gael dilly-dallied a bit too much for my liking in the defensive third and only got on the overlap once all night; and Gilberto looked so out of step with the rest of the team it was excruciating to watch. It’s so odd thinking that last year he was carrying the team at times with his calm manner, but now that calmness has been eclipsed by the Flamster’s fiery-ness and Gilberto’s languid style looks…well, slow.
Next up is another trip to the North-East as we face Newcastle’s neighbours, Middlesbrough. Hopefully we have either Cesc or Hleb back to link up with Tomas, and hopefully Flamini can slot back into midfield to raise the tempo of our play, something which we were seriously lacking against the Barcodes.