Patience a virtue

Arsenal's current crop are ominously demonstrating they can win ugly, writes Peter Fraser.

Last Updated: 29/12/13 at 19:39

Olivier Giroud: Scored his 13th Premier League goal of the calender year of 2013

Olivier Giroud: Scored his 13th Premier League goal of the calender year of 2013

Just as Arsenal's critics were preparing themselves to hit Arsene Wenger's team with the familiar shortcomings of lacking a Plan B, which was supposedly a reason for a recent wobble in the Premier League, a 1-0 victory at Newcastle United in Sunday's lunchtime kick-off demonstrated this particular group are capable of that attribute of winning ugly.

Missing the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, it was great credit to Wenger's men, who top the Premier League going into 2014, that they ground out this three points despite having key men Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and even tired goalscorer Olivier Giroud, who scored his first goal in eight games in all competitions, being far from their best.

And, unlike Manchester City's win with a much-changed team over Crystal Palace on Saturday, this was achieved, courtesy of Walcott's well-placed free-kick for Giroud's second-half header, against Alan Pardew's in-form Newcastle without any major scares.

As the familiar strains of "1-0 to the Arsenal" rang out from the visiting fans at St James' Park, it was a reminder that, while this current crop possess Wenger's trademark aesthetic football, they are also capable of getting the job done on their off days.

Selection

Newcastle v Arsenal starting formations

Newcastle boss Pardew recalled midfielder Cheick Tiote after his one-match ban, with the Ivory Coast international, who scored a late equaliser in a dramatic 4-4 draw between the sides three seasons ago, replacing Hatem Ben Arfa in the only change to the side which beat nine-man Stoke City 5-1 on Boxing Day.

Ozil missed out and he did not even make Arsenal's bench as Wenger confirmed the Germany international had been ruled out for up to three weeks with a shoulder injury. It meant Cazorla had the chance to operate in his preferred central playmaker role behind lone striker Giroud. Thomas Vermaelen, Mikel Arteta and injured Ramsey also made way for Jack Wilshere - following suspension - Laurent Koscielny, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky.

On Trend

Unlike the 7-3 game which was played between these two teams exactly one year earlier, this contest will not live long in the memory. The reason was because it saw a couple of sides playing in identical formations, styles and tactics, meaning they completely cancelled each other out. There was consequently a sense of inevitability that the goal would come from a set-piece.

But that Arsenal did not panic when faced with this strategic poser says much about the confidence running through the club, squad and manager. There was no need to try anything risky by attempting to revert to that back-up plan which they are so often accused of lacking.

With both Arsenal and Newcastle playing in the haute Premier League fashion of matching 4-2-3-1 formations, the central midfield was painfully crowded and neither team were able to get the play dictated by their respective strategists, Newcastle's Yohan Cabaye and Arsenal's Cazorla.

Newcastle (left) and Arsenal (right) stayed very narrow in their average formations

It led to an incredibly scrappy and evenly-matched game, demonstrated by the fact that the teams were separated by less than 100 total passes (Newcastle 468; Arsenal 530) while possession was extremely closely shared (Newcastle 47.4%; 52.6%).

Newcastle's Vurnon Anita and Tiote gave Cazorla, especially, no time or space to operate, meaning the Spaniard ended the first half having won only 28.6 per cent of his seven duels while at the final whistle his passing accuracy was down at 78.5% - which was less than any other Arsenal midfielder who started the game. Cazorla also played only five successful passes into Newcastle's penalty area in the entire match.

Cazorla struggled to play successful passes into the box while possession was evenly matched

This showed that Ozil was missed but it also only further underlined Arsenal's resolve that they stayed true to their methods, did not become flustered and, even with players clearly struggling with fatigue, still managed five shots on target to Newcastle's three.

Lack of Width

As hinted at with the congested central areas, both teams were guilty of completely ignoring the potential to open up their opponents in wide areas, leading to a lack of service to respective strikers Loic Remy and Giroud.

Yoan Gouffran had scored in Newcastle's last five home games in the Premier League but he was a major disappointment. He touched the ball just 20 times in the first half, less than any other of his team-mates. Gouffran was taken off just after the hour having touched the ball only six times in the second half and having contributed only 13 passes in opposition territory in the entire game at a very disappointing success rate of just 53.8%.

Newcastle did make some good progress in the first half through the combination of excellent right-back Mathieu Debuchy and Moussa Sissoko, with the former getting forward when possible and playing seven passes to the latter - their team's joint most frequent first-half passing combination - but their influence faded in the second half.

Gouffran (left) and Walcott (right) were guilty of moving into central areas

Likewise, regardless of his excellent free-kick for Giroud's goal, Walcott was horribly ineffective as a wide outlet for Arsenal. Sky Sports' Glenn Hoddle said as much at half-time, when he explained: "Arsenal have found it difficult to get in behind. I do not think they have got behind Newcastle once. It is a day for an old-fashioned winger's game. I think Arsene might be saying to Walcott to get wide and hog the line."

Walcott touched the ball just 36 times in the entire game, which was less than any other Arsenal player who started the contest. At the same time, he won only a lousy 16.7% of his six duels and attempted only a mere 24 passes, which was again less than any of his fellow members of the starting XI.

Tired Giroud

It is no secret that Arsenal need to sign another striker, hence their pursuit of Liverpool's Luis Suarez in the summer, to give some support to Giroud. And, now more than ever, the January transfer window looks like it will be essential for Wenger.

Giroud scored Arsenal's winner with a deft header, ending his goal drought, but he otherwise looked completely exhausted in what was already his 32nd game of the season for club and country. He has been Arsenal's top goalscorer in the Premier League in 2013, with his winner against Newcastle taking his overall total to 13 in a calendar year in which his club have taken more points than any of their top-flight rivals, but he is straining under the workload.

Giroud versus Newcastle: Passes (yellow), shots (red), duels lost (turquoise) and goal (blue)

Giroud hit the target with only one, his goal, of his three shots against Newcastle, which included one embarrassing effort at an open goal which was heading for a throw-in. The Frenchman looked bruised, battered and generally in desperate need of some time away from the frontline.

One lazy attempt at a tackle on Tiote, which resulted in him slightly twisting his own ankle and earning his first booking of the season, was a snapshot of Giroud's apparent fatigue. He was forced to work on scraps but again his hold-up play was poor and he won just 38.5% of his 13 duels.

But, at the same time, Arsenal managed to take the points with all of Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud struggling and that is an ominous sign for the rest of the Premier League as Wenger's men approach 2014 as the table-toppers.

Pardew's view

"Against Stoke, we had all the [referee] calls go our way and today, perhaps we were on the other side of it. It is just frustrating, a little bit, that we have not got something on the scoreboard in terms of a point, no more than that. One set-play where we did not defend well has cost us and we have been good at them all year."

Wenger's view

"We had to dig deep today. I think we controlled the game quite well and we restricted them to basically no chances, but they are a good team. There were two aspects to the game. The first was leading up to 1-0 when we were quite in control, but after that we subconsciously only wanted to defend."

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icky van Wolfswinkel's remarkable record of one goal from one game at least deserves an honourable mention. And I'm willing to bet that at least one of Costa, Ulloa or Enner Valencia will earn a place on the list by the end of the season. Probably not Costa

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