Monday, August 31, 2015

Newcastle 0 Arsenal 1: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal dominated 10-man Newcastle on Saturday but needed a Fabricio Coloccini own goal to secure a 1-0 victory at St. James’ Park.

A speedy attacking lineup, featuring Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, struggled to provide much more excitement than the more conventional group that had started the scoreless draw with Liverpool. The lack of stimulation largely resulted from Newcastle’s defensive stance after the 15th-minute red card to striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.

His expulsion and Arsenal’s long numerical advantage make it hard to draw any broad conclusions from the match. Still, we learned a few things about Arsenal; here are three.

Arsenal cede possession only in extraordinary circumstances

In the first 15 minutes of the match, Arsenal posed a real threat, primarily because Newcastle were aggressive offensively. When they weren’t committing fouls in an effort to win back the ball quickly, the home side sent players forward and presented Arsenal with the space to pass and move.

This dynamic changed with the Mitrovic red card. Newcastle then retreated, allowing Arsenal freedom over three quarters of the pitch and clogging the final quarter with ten defenders. Arsenal had two basic choices in this situation:
  1. Control possession and try to pick apart the Newcastle defense
  2. Cede a bit of the possession and exploit the space Newcastle had left open

It’s not a surprise that Arsenal chose option #1. It capitalizes on the Gunners’ quickness of passing and thought and is the less risky choice.

The problem is that it requires extreme precision because the opposition can foil the attack with proper determination and positioning. Those qualities have proven Newcastle’s strengths early in the season, for example in the excellent rear-guard action against Manchester United at Old Trafford the previous week.

Option #2 would have been a riskier proposition. Imagine the outcry—“We were up a man! Why did we let them have so much of the ball?!?”—especially if Newcastle had used the possession allowed them to threaten the Arsenal goal. For that reason, we witnessed the familiar sight of Arsenal making short passes from side to side around the Newcastle penalty area.

And the exceptions to that rule, such as those we saw at Manchester City and West Ham in the 2014-15 season, will continue to stand out.

Theo Walcott’s days on the right are over

Walcott got the nod over Olivier Giroud as Arsenal’s starting center forward, which manager Arsène Wenger explained had anticipated a different approach from Newcastle:
I expected more space for Theo Walcott. At the start, it looked quite promising, but after 15 minutes, it was a different problem for us. There was no space behind their defenders, the service through their lines was very difficult, and they defended well.

Walcott had two good looks at goal, failed to convert either of them, and did not get involved much otherwise.

But this isn’t about Walcott as a center forward. If he was struggling there, Oxlade-Chamberlain was just as ineffective on the right side of Arsenal’s attack. His touch seemed off, his passes went awry, and his efforts to win back the ball were halfhearted. Oxlade-Chamberlain failed both his take-on attempts, completed only 89 percent of his passes compared with the team’s 92 percent rate, and made only one tackle and one interception.

Under those circumstances, a plausible move would have been to introduce Giroud and move Walcott right. Walcott’s minimal defensive contribution wouldn’t have caused major issues because Newcastle wasn’t attacking much and Hector Bellerin was putting in a solid performance at right back. His quickness and knack for a cross could have opened the Newcastle defense in a different way from the right.

Wenger’s decision, though, was to substitute Giroud for Walcott after 70 minutes. That’s a hint that Walcott’s three-year campaign to play center forward has been successful, but at the price of any involvement on the right side.

No one is making a strong case to lead the Arsenal line

This might be an obvious point about an attacking contingent that’s scored just once in four matches. It’s worth emphasizing, because despite Arsenal’s improved shooting accuracy against Newcastle, it was still found wanting.

After three matches in which only 30 percent of Arsenal’s shots were on goal, the team got nine of 22 on frame in Newcastle. That’s a 40 percent rate of accuracy. Many lacked conviction, though, with Walcott’s two first-half attempts and Giroud’s late lob job standing out as especially weak.

Walcott and Giroud were the top candidates for the striker role entering the season, and neither has made the position his own. Will Wenger keep faith in the pair, give Danny Welbeck a shot when he returns from injury, or move Alexis to the tip of the attack? All seem reasonable options given the trends.

Unless, of course, all evidence to the contrary, Mr. World-Class Striker appears at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground by 1800h GMT on Tuesday, the close of the transfer window.

Extra Time: This is what happens when referees respond properly to bullying tactics

There’s no more irritating sight in sport than a manager fulminating against referees when his own team’s illegal acts are called out. Newcastle’s Steve McLaren is the latest culprit. He gesticulated, grew more red-faced than normal, and later complained to the media about the red card and the six other cautions issued his team by referee Andre Marriner. But any observer not bloodthirsty saw that the deliberate aggression was rightly punished.

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