Sunday, July 21, 2024

Newcastle 0-2 Arsenal: Fine margins as Gunners stand up to the physical challenge

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When you wake up on a Monday morning and Ian Wright is happy and Alan Shearer is sad, you can begin your week with a smile.

I think Arsenal deserved to take three points yesterday against Newcastle, but as we’ve often said, fine margins can be the difference at this level. Had Jacob Murphy’s early shot crept inside the post, rather than clattering off it, I wonder how we’d have reacted to conceding yet another early goal. Had the ball not skimmed Jakub Kiwior’s thigh before hitting his hand, they would have had a penalty with less than 10 minutes on the clock.

But it did hit the post, it did hit the thigh, and just a few minutes later we were 1-0 ahead. We got on top of some early sloppiness in possession to work the ball into their half, Jorginho fed Martin Odegaard who fizzed a shot inside the near post from a good 30 yards. Whether you think Nick Pope should have done better is slightly reminiscent of how we conceded our first against Man City, because the Newcastle goalkeeper kept them in the game in the first half.

Both Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli had excellent chances which I think they should have done better with in the final moment. Pope did well enough, but the finishes weren’t as convincing as we’ve seen from these two throughout this season. At the other end, Aaron Ramsdale saved very well from Joe Willock as the two England keepers had a save-off. Odegaard created a chance for Martinelli which he didn’t take (although it wasn’t the Norwegian’s finest pass), and right before the break the captain had just the keeper to beat but Pope made an outstanding save. I think the goalkeeper deserves a lot of credit for that one, whereas the other two chances I mentioned were more on the players who missed, if that makes sense.

The game was very physical and the referee let a lot go. How Newcastle got through the first half without a card is beyond me. Guimares’ snide rake down Saka’s Achilles was probably the worst, but Fabian Schar taking out two Arsenal players in one go, and the ref just playing on was hard to understand. When Xhaka, one of those players who had been taken out, went down towards the end of the half, Callum Wilson took exception, and it sparked some feisty scenes. Kieran Trippier was losing his rag with Gabriel Jesus, and the Brazilian’s experience to then demand the ball so the right back would give him a clatter and win us a free kick to ease the pressure was excellent.

I’m not a fan of Eddie Howe’s choir boy image, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. It’s up to the referees to manage the game, Newcastle are strong and physical, but look at faux hard man Wilson, all mouth and no trousers, falling over like a buttercup in the wind in the second half when anyone went near him. As for Howe complaining about time-wasting, he has a goldfish memory considering how Newcastle played at our place earlier in the season. One man’s time-wasting is another’s game management. Arsenal did it perfectly yesterday.

Ramsdale was the hero early in the second half, making a brilliant save from Schar who had a free header from close range. This came moments after Isak hit the post with a header. Fine margins again. A goal early in the second half might have changed the momentum, but inches matter.

Xhaka made an incredible recovery run and tackle to deny Willock again, and Arteta brought on Kieran Tierney for Oleksandr Zinchenko who was good in our build-up, but whose defensive form is definitely a worry. Joelinton left a shoulder on Xhaka’s face as we defended a set-piece, before Schar – clearly wound up – very deliberately left one on Jesus. It was close to being a red for me, but there wasn’t even a yellow card.

He knew what he was doing, and he got lucky. Which made it all the more amusing when we went down the left hand side, Martinelli pulled a cross back, and Schar didn’t know what he was doing as he diverted the ball into his own net. Karma, baby. Sometimes you get exactly what you deserve, and that’s all he merited. Obviously there’s the other side of it, as I mentioned the referee has to apply the rules properly, but on a day when he doesn’t, it was nice that the universe played its part.

Newcastle made changes, we made changes, and despite a busy final few minutes, they didn’t really threaten beyond some set-pieces which we dealt with well. A late one when Ramsdale came and just plucked the ball out of the air cemented the kind of performance he put in; I enjoyed Ben White celebrating a late tackle like he’d scored a goal; and the back four that finished the game looked solid to me.

Ahead of them, Jorginho had an excellent game in midfield. It was interesting to hear Mikel Arteta talk about it afterwards, choosing the technical quality over the greater physicality that Thomas Partey brings to midfield:

There were question marks because it was going to be really physical but you want to go physicality against physicality, we’d have no chance to win the game, so we had to try for something different. I think he understood the game really well, he’s a really intelligent player, he gives a lot of security to the team. He dominated the game in many moments.

It was a fairly brave decision, Partey’s recent form notwithstanding, and it paid off. I thought Jorginho used every bit of his ability on the ball as well as his experience to deal with the 100mph Newcastle approach which was, of course, coupled with the kind of relentless fouling that can be hard to live when a referee doesn’t do anything about it.

A word too for Martin Odegaard who has had the captain’s bit between his teeth this week. Two goals against Chelsea in midweek, and another crucial one here. Beyond the goal though, he was absolutely brilliant in terms of setting the tone for the kind of performance we needed to have a chance of taking all three points. A classic of the leading by example genre, but with a side-dish of technical excellence that was so important.

I wrote before this game how I felt that Mikel Arteta was very deliberately playing down any talk of revenge because of what happened at St James’ Park last season. So it was quite something to hear the post-game analysis in which that was brought up as a key factor. First, Ramsdale went on Sky to reveal exactly when that bit of motivation was dropped:

It wasn’t mentioned up until the meeting before we left the hotel. The manager showed us a clip of the documentary last year, showed us all our faces, staff included, showing how hurt we were feeling, all of our reactions. We had that burning desire as soon as we left the hotel that it wasn’t going to be the same today.

In his pre-game press conference, Arteta said – with a straight face – that he had never seen the documentary! Funny how he managed to find just exactly the right clip. And in his post-game press conference, he referenced last year’s game, and said:

“We had to feel it, it wasn’t enough just talking about, we had to feel it, we had to see it, we had to recognise our faces. Not only the players but what it meant for the staff as well. That’s football, you can win, lose but that feeling was beyond something that we didn’t do enough on the day. We had to put that right today.

“I was looking at the video … you don’t have to be a genius to see how painful it was. The word was pain. And then desire for revenge. They had that today in their bellies, for sure.”

It’s been one of the stories of this season, away day revenge. Crystal Palace on the opening day, responding to the 3-0 defeat there last season. Brentford away, after that horrible night on the first day. White Hart Lane. Now Newcastle. It’s an imperfect science, but there’s a lot to be said for pain as a motivator, and I think the manager and his staff deserve a lot of credit for harnessing that the way they have this season.

I don’t know about you, but when I try and picture an upcoming fixture in my mind’s eye, it was easy to see how this one could have gone another way. Our job was to make sure it didn’t, and while we might have had a little luck along the way, there have been other days this season when that went the way of the opposition. For the most part though, this was the kind of performance that can be a building block. We dealt with everything they threw at us, with the ball and without, and stood up to it without losing our composure. That was important.

So, to the three points leaving us just a point behind top spot. All we can do is win our games, and this week looked pretty tricky on paper. To come out of it with 6 points is impressive, and maybe it’ll be too little, too late but we reminded Man City we’re still here, so let’s see how that little bit of pressure might impact them. It’s unlikely, but you never know, and they have a couple of big Champions League games to contend with too.

All in all, a good day for us. Now we regroup, work hard, and prepare for Brighton on Sunday.

James and I will have an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

We should have the podcast for you around lunchtime at some point. Until then.

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