It feels like an age since I was stood at the emirates watching my beloved Southampton defending like a pub team, and being destroyed by a rampant Arsenal. A lot has changed since then and things are slightly more positive for us now than they were back then.
The main difference in our positive results and performances over recent months is our stability at the back. This is mainly down to the fact that Jack Cork is back playing after a long injury lay off and has provided the back four with much needed protection. We’ve also been playing the wonderfully talented 17 year old Luke Shaw at left back, a huge problem area for us at the start of the season. His defensive ability is very impressive and he’s dealt with some of the best wingers around quite comfortably. Going forward Shaw is very confident; he’s a good crosser of the ball and will occasionally go on these Bale type dribbles running at defenders. I’m not surprised to hear that Arsenal are interested in Shaw and even less surprised that Wenger is once again stalking our youngsters, but to be honest there is absolutely no chance of him leaving. Now that we are in the premiership we won’t be selling our young talent unless silly money is offered (I’m talking £15-20 million region for Shaw).
Our biggest issue this season is between the sticks. We have used 3 keepers this season, none of whom have filled me with any sort of confidence. Kelvin Davis started against Stoke, but was dodgy and I really don’t have a clue who’s going to get picked on Tuesday. I’d personally go with Arthur Boruc, he’s played in the Champions League and has a load of international caps. It looks as though he’s lost the gut he possessed when we first signed him and I think the Club have forgiven him for the incident on his home debut in which he swore and threw a bottle at home fans, as you do.
It’s difficult to predict what our starting team is going to be, the Club is always very secretive about injuries. Our captain Adam Lallana is injured, which is a massive blow but we have taken points in our last two games without him. Nathaniel Clyne was injured for the stoke game but hopefully he’ll be back.
Having watched both Saints and Arsenals games yesterday, I don’t think it’ll be the same score line as the game earlier in the season. Arsenal certainly look shaky at the back, something I’m hoping we can exploit. Demba Ba’s hold up play on Saturday was excellent and Arsenal didn’t deal with him at all well. I’m hoping Rickie Lambert can cause the same sort of problems on Tuesday. The other, more scary, aspect of Arsenals display was how dangerous and potent the front four look going forward. This is obviously due to Theo finally playing in the position that every Saints fan has been saying he should for years. It’s strange it’s taken the management at Arsenal so long to play Theo in his rightful position. Not only has Theo’s game improved, but I feel his pace and movement is giving Santi Cazorla more space and freedom to play further up the pitch. If he finds space between our midfield and defence on Tuesday its going to be long afternoon me thinks.
If they do start, it’s going to be a little bit frustrating watching the ex Saints boys Ox and Theo playing up top, I think a lot of fans will be watching thinking ‘what if?’. Ex players always score against us as well, so hopefully Wenger gives them a rest.
I think it’s going to be an entertaining game; my prediction for the result depends heavily on team selection. I think if Wenger puts out the strongest team available to him it’s going to be hard for us and will be 2-1 to the Arsenal, but if he fields a slightly weaker team and we can replicate our first half performance at Stoke I think a cheeky 2-1 home win could be on the cards.
This Arsenal-Newcastle fixture has thrown up numerous dramas and enthralling spectacles over the past few years. Who can forget the Joey Barton-inspired comeback of two years ago, capped by that Tiote volley or his central role in the Gervinho sending off last season? Delving further back into the annals of Premier League history, my fondest memories of this fixture remain Newcastle’s 3-1 victory at Highbury in December 2001 sending us top at Christmas (this is quite an enjoyable read http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2001/dec/19/match.sport1). Who could forget Dennis Bergkamp in 2002 scoring what remains one of the greatest goals of all time.
Presently, neither team finds themselves in the rudest of health. Arsenal’s 3 consecutive victories have papered over increasingly widening cracks on the footballing front. Arsenal’s inability to replace Van Persie (in my considered opinion) with a comparative world-class striker has hit the club hard. This being the case, as a Newcastle fan, I will still always approach this fixture with a degree of trepidation, as Arsenal retains the ability to tear apart any team on their day.
Newcastle’s season has been hit by an avalanche of injury problems, contractual wrangling with our star striker (am not going to mention the possibility of his turning up at Arsenal) and rumblings of discontent over the lack of transfer activity in the summer. The signings of 19-year-old Curtis Good, Gael Bigirimana, Romain Amalfitano and Vurnon Anita have failed to placate the Geordie faithful. Our form has failed to reach the stunning heights of 2011/12. Cisse has failed to fire, and cannot form any semblance of an understanding with Ba, who has continued to lead the way with his goals. Injuries to Steven Taylor and suspension to our captain, have torn apart the defensive solidity that proved to be the bedrock of our success last season. Creatively, the loss of Ben Arfa and Cabaye has contributed to a marked drop in goal-scoring chances for our front two. Enough of the excuses…
Wednesday’s performance at Old Trafford, coupled with our recent win against QPR, do point to brighter times for the Toon. The signing of Gael Bigirimana has looked to be an inspired piece of business by Alan Pardew. His performances have steadily improved and he looked at home against an admittingly ageing Paul Scholes and unpredictable Michael Carrick. With Anita crocked for the tie on Saturday, along with Ben Arfa and Cabaye remaining on the sidelines, Bigirimana’s importance cannot be overestimated against the likes of Arteta, Cazorla and Wilshere. Sadly, reliance on a 19-year-old, illustrates the primary reason as to Newcastle’s failings this season. The paucity of options for Pardew has meant that we’ve had to throw in too many inexperienced youngsters to plug ever-expanding gaps in our squad.
The somewhat surprising success of Pardew last season has led to understandably raised expectations this term. He has been found tactically wanting, with Newcastle at the top of the long-ball table, with 18% of their passes constituted as ‘long-passes’, 2% ahead of Stoke. Only in the past few weeks has Pardew been persuaded to instill a bit of width into our play, putting the pace of Marveaux on the wings, to replace the more defensively minded Gutierrez. His partnership with the rapidly improving Santon has lead to a much-increased threat from our left side, Santon’s rampaging runs becoming a key part of our attacking ‘arsenal.’ If Pardew can find a centre-back able to stand up to the physicality of English football in the January transfer window, then hopefully the fallible Mike Williamson can be pushed down the pecking order. Another striker to complement (or replace) Ba, and Cisse, along with a full-back and centre-back are musts this coming window.
Moving towards Saturday, though Newcastle are yet to score from a set-piece this season, Pardew will feel that Arsenal’s weak link remains their lack of physicality and susceptibility against bullying centre-forwards (read Andy Carroll in 2010). Cazorla seems to be Arsenal’s dangerman, giving Tiote the job of shackling him and disabling his ability in becoming the epicenter of Arsenal fluidity. The disruption of Arsenal’s passing game is vital in attaining a result at the Emirates. Luckily Williamson is now suspended for this game, so it looks as if Perch will partner Coloccini at the back with Simpson and Santon as full-backs (Krul in goal of course). It’s anyone’s guess as to who we can patch together in midfield. Fortunately, Tiote is able to return to join Bigirimana and Marveaux, with possibly Obertan to replace Anita in midfield. Cisse, stuck out on the right, will play behind Ba. With Newcastle’s recent form, a heavy defeat looks to be on the cards, but knowing our club, anything can happen, and hopefully we can repeat the success of 2010 and come away with the 3 points. Prediction: 3-1 to the Gunners.
Key battle: Ba against Vermaelen.
Monday’s victory over Reading and 5 promising young players agreeing new deals feels like a great week to me. Such a great week in fact, i’ve plucked up the courage to reflect on all things Arsenal and write a post. So rarely these days do we have the opportunity to soak up a convincing victory, that Monday night at the Madejski left thousands of Arsenal fans wondering why, if we’re capable of performing like that, we’re usually left regretting what might have been. I must say it was an incredible atmosphere. The pent up frustrations of our fans were finally outpoured for all the right reasons. I understand the concerns that still remain, but why not enjoy a great victory against an appalling team whilst we can.
On Wednesday morning an agent who represents a few Arsenal players, decided he wanted to grab a bit of the limelight by suggesting Arsenal fans had a ‘feel good’ announcement from the Club due at 3pm. Obviously a twitter meltdown followed as everyone suddenly knew someone who had the inside scoop. By 3pm, much like the Mayan Calendar bollocks, there was a sudden realisation that nothing had happened. Excitement was slowly turning to anger until around 3.05pm when we were informed that our ‘young British core’ had all re-signed. The future was bright. Once more however it took all of about 5 minutes for people to clock the absence of one particular youthful British player. Where was Theo Walcott? Delight turned once more to disappointment. It looks to all as if Theo is off, but frankly the loyalty of Jack and the thought of him captaining the team at the age of 25 is far more important than the future of Theo.
All 5 players signing at the same time is a great PR move by the Club at a difficult time. Arsene, the man under so much pressure, standing over them like a proud father. It certainly draws some patience from the fanbase, but it also shows a drastic change of tact from Wenger. This a man who, in February 2005, fielded the first ever 16 man Premier League squad consisting of no English players. At the time he was slated by the media, told he was showing a lack of respect to English football and the victim would be the national team. He explained that his priority was the quality of the Arsenal team. He explained that it would take 10 years until Arsenal and some other English Clubs could produce youth players with enough technical quality to compete with the best in the world.
Surely the most important thing we’ve learned from all of this is that Jack Wilshere is left footed but right handed..
Jenkinson, Gibbs, Ramsey, Chamberlain and Wilshere are great players, all of varying quality, but I think Wenger’s British core is evidence of an appreciation of the importance of players who understand the Club, understand English football, who grow up together and understand each other more than simply technical ability. The turnover of players over the last few seasons has been ridiculous. My dad doesn’t go to many games but he came to Sunderland at home, the first game of the season. He didn’t have a clue who most of the players were. Almost all of them had been at the Club for under 3 years. How can we expect the current squad to know how to win consistently in this league when most of them are new to it and new to each other?
I know everyone, including myself, has been critical of Ramsey but this contract confirms to me that Arsene sees him as his little project. We know somewhere deep inside him, Aaron has quality. He suffered a horrendous injury and he hasn’t played at all well since. Nevertheless, every time I’m reminded of his age I’m pleasantly surprised. The bloke is still only 21. What I don’t understand is why, in order to make great players, we have to hold the rest of the team up in the process. As Phillip Auclair has said many times, Arsene plays the likes of Ramsey and Bendtner wide to test them in more compact spaces. His intention is always to move them back to the middle at which point they will find it easier. Surely this is the point of the reserves or the U21s though. Can he not learn his trade in the 2nd team or out on loan and then, once he’s good enough, come back in and look the part? If he’s not good enough to play in his own position, how is he ever going to be good enough to play out of position!
Interestingly the BBC were running the headline ‘Wilshere and four others get new deals’. The way we’ve been going lately I think we’re all surprised when anyone signs a new contract. You get the feeling he’s offering them all new deals and just hoping some of them want to stay. The headline should have been ‘Wilshere and four others agree to sign new deals’.
It’s an early start at Wigan tomorrow so let’s pray we can go into the Christmas break with a bit of joy. No West Ham on boxing day means if it goes wrong tomorrow we’ll have to wait a while to put it right. Let’s hope it doesn’t come top that..