Theo Walcott was given a chance to push for a starting role with Giroud struggling, but it went badly. Victory for Arsenal, but far from convincing in pursuit of lofty ambitions…
“Winning the title is our target and we feel we have a chance in a very competitive league. We are in a league in which it is very difficult to know how good our opponents will be, so it is important to focus on making sure we are as strong as we can be” – Arsene Wenger, July 17.
We’re used to Wenger’s yearly claim that his squad can win the league, and Arsenal’s manager has been vociferous this week in his prickly reaction to claims to the contrary. If Wenger only reacts when he is flustered, we should assume that Gary Neville’s words on Monday evening caused some offence.
The new season may still be its early infancy, but Saturday’s trip to Newcastle became must-win for Wenger. Fail to beat Newcastle and Arsenal could be seven or eight points behind Manchester City heading into the first international break of the season. The fortnight would have been spent dismissing talk of crisis that only get louder through repetition.
And win they did. Fabricio Coloccini’s own goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s misdirected shot made it two wins from two on the road; own goals can now boast a league total double in number to all of Arsenal’s players combined.
Wenger will plead that only the result matters, but this was not an afternoon to inspire confidence that we were watching the eventual champions. One must be careful of criticising sides in victory (and don a tin hat in doing so), but this was a match which re-raised a familiar question, rather than answered any obvious concerns.
Arsenal were presented with exactly the type of scenario that they should exploit. Aleksandar Mitrovic was sent off after just 15 minutes for raking his studs down Francis Coquelin’s shin, adding to the growing feeling that his over-aggressive mentality is going to cause headaches only for his own side. Newcastle supporters vehemently booed off Andre Marriner at the break, but the only incorrect decision of the half was not to award Arsenal a penalty for Florian Thauvin’s foul on Hector Bellerin.
Neville’s critical assessment of Arsenal surrounded their central midfield options, but those worries were negated temporarily by the sending-off. Newcastle were restricted to rare counter attacks, generally instigated by one home player taking on three or four opponents. Such scenarios are unlikely to cause Coquelin (and those behind him) any problem. Newcastle have not had a shot on target in the league since the first half of their match against Swansea City.
Instead it was in the final third that Arsenal disappointed. After a start to the season in which home sides have won just six of 30 matches, Wenger’s decision to start Theo Walcott up front was presumably to take advantage of the counter attack, and actually Mitrovic’s red card made it harder for Arsenal. Rather than stretch the game, they continued play the little passes 40 yards from goal that suits Olivier Giroud far more than Walcott.
This was not a good audition for a regular starting place from Walcott. He ended up with one shot on target, and another stalling of the engine after the burst of goals in May. Missing a presentable opportunity after Tim Krul had parried Alexis Sanchez’s shot didn’t help either.
Arsenal looked toothless at times, tentative at others. BT Sport’s commentators gave Krul an honourable mention for the Man of the Match award, but the Dutchman made no saves that you would consider extraordinary; the save with his feet from Walcott before Mitrovic’s red card was his best.
It is not just Walcott’s shooting that will worry Wenger, but his general play too. In 70 minutes (and in a side with 74% possession) he managed only 18 touches. Only three of those were in the penalty area, and Walcott completed just eight passes in Newcastle’s half. New contract, same old.
“I think we played a little bit cautious,” was Wenger’s post-match assessment. “We have not fired offensively and the finishing is not clinical.” Given that Arsenal have had over 70 shots this season and scored just one goal for themselves, I’d emphatically agree.
The form of Giroud only adds to Wenger’s worries. The Frenchman has two goals in his last 13 Arsenal games, the opener against Crystal Palace and the fourth goal in the 4-0 FA Cup final win over Aston Villa. Giroud’s shot from range that went high and wide was a sign of the old, wasteful striker. It’s a candid way of assessing the situation, but Arsenal are left with a 7/10 striker as back-up to an 8/10 striker. Danny Welbeck will return at some point, the final member of the ‘good, but not good enough’ trio.
“I am optimistic of bringing someone in [a striker],” Wenger said after the game. “But it is unpredictable.” Talking up a title bid in the summer, insisting that no reinforcements are needed in a certain area before leaving the door ajar late in the day? You’ll hopefully allow me to be p*ssy and say that nothing about this is “unpredictable”, Arsene.
Arsenal gain that much-needed victory, but the title? Not on this evidence. Again. Look back at that quote from July. Are Arsenal “as strong as they could be,” or have they again left themselves short of their peers? By Tuesday evening, we might know for sure.