Gillespie Guest Post: The Newcastle PerspectivePosted: December 29, 2012
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.