Sunday, January 3, 2016

Arsenal 1 Newcastle 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal labored to a 1-0 victory over Newcastle on Saturday to close the busy festive schedule with three wins in four matches.

In the 72nd minute, Laurent Koscielny slipped behind the Newcastle defense after a corner kick and stabbed home Olivier Giroud's header for the game's lone goal. This scrappy goal--and some heroics from goalkeeper Petr Cech--were enough to secure the Gunners' place at the top of the Premier League table after 20 matches.

Here are three things we learned from the encounter.

Arsenal can win without humming

This was far from a scintillating Arsenal performance. You can understand the reasons: A fourth league match in 13 days with a squad reduced by injury to 15 senior players.

Manager Arsène Wenger admitted his team struggled. "Our legs were heavy, I must say," he told his post-match press conference. He elaborated on the implications: "To not drop points with the way we played today, I think it is very important. It helps the team as well because you go through moments where you don’t play well. The memory of having done that before and still having won the game, helps you to hang on sometimes."

Indeed, it wasn't the first time this season the Gunners have won despite not being at their best. League victories over Everton and Aston Villa soon after tough European fixtures come immediately to mind.

Some will view those performances as concerning; others will say that one mark of champions is to win while playing relatively poorly. What can't be in dispute is the immediate consequence of this victory, three points that give Arsenal two points more than second-place Leicester City at the top of the Premier League table.

And a total of nine points from the 12 available during the holiday period. That's a solid return, as good as any team's over that stretch, pending the outcome of Tottenham's match at Everton late on Sunday.

As Wenger said, "I think we have given a lot during Christmas and we have had games before over Christmas. At the end of the day what do people look at after Christmas? Four games and how many points you have made. Nine points is acceptable or even good."

Petr Cech delivered another victory

After the opening ten minutes, Arsenal posed very little attacking threat until Koscielny's winning goal. Meanwhile, Newcastle grew stronger and had several decent looks at Cech's goal.

In fact, the Magpies produced more shots on goal (six) than did Arsenal (three). Cech parried them all, the most impressive his one-on-one stop of Georginio Wijnaldum in the 48th minute.

Because this save established the conditions for Arsenal to secure all three points, it's worth describing it in some detail.

Newcastle's Ayoze Perez picks up Aaron Ramsey's errant pass at the halfway line, then storms toward the Arsenal penalty area. He draws enough attention from Arsenal's Mathieu Flamini, Per Mertesacker, and Koscielny that Wijnaldum finds himself open to the right of Cech's goal.

Cech anticipates Perez's pass, comes out to close down Wijnaldum, then goes down to smother the shot.

It was similar to his late save on Everton's Gerard Deulofeu that clinched Arsenal's 2-1 victory in October. Overall, Cech produced another performance indicative of a title-winning goalkeeper.

Arsenal's midfield makeover showed some flaws

Saturday's contest saw the return of the midfield pairing of Ramsey and Flamini. It was the duo's fifth league match together since the November injury of Santi Cazorla, and the relationship still displays some imperfections.

Individually, Flamini and Ramsey made substantive and positive contributions. Flamini was the team's leading tackler, succeeding on six of nine attempts according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app. And Ramsey was in many ways the team's offensive hub, completing the highest number of passes on the team and figuring in four of its five top passing combinations.

The problem is that as a unit Flamini and Ramsey don't seem to jibe well. This shortcoming is most evident in the pair's dynamic without the ball. Unlike Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, Flamini and Ramsey sometimes have difficulty coordinating their defensive movement, both with each other and with the defenders behind them.

As a result in this match, Newcastle found considerable space to exploit in the midfield. That was the source of Wijnaldum's early second-half chance, and it was the platform for passes to the flank from which dangerous crosses were launched. A team with better finishing than Newcastle's would have made the Gunners pay for their generous midfield spacing.

Extra time

One might reasonably ask under the circumstances if Calum Chambers is a better midfield partner for Ramsey. Acknowledging that Chambers is a neophyte in the holding role and faced less-than-elite competition in his one outing there against Bournemouth, we did see him gel with Ramsey in an encouraging way.

In particular, Chambers shouldered some of the burden of distribution, completing 53/59 passes against Bournemouth, or 10 percent of the team's total completions, while Ramsey hit on 60 of 70 (13 percent). Against Newcastle, Ramsey's proportion rose to 17 percent (67 of the team's 400 completed passes), while Flamini connected on just 30 (7.5 percent).

Flamini brings considerable experience and an unblemished record at the Emirates Stadium, but energy and flow make a case for Chambers.

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