Newcastle United 0 - 1 Arsenal

First off, I apologize again for my absence. My crappy Internet provider (a gigantic corporation whose name I won't mention, but it begins with Time and ends with Warner) went out AGAIN for four or five days. So, belatedly, I'd like to wish everyone the happiest of holidays, whatever it is you celebrate.

Now, the match report:

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal

Patrick Vieira (45)

The Champions: Manuel Almunia -- Ashley Cole, Kolo Abib Toure, Sol Campbell, Lauren Bisane-Etane -- Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Mathieu Flamini, Fredrik Ljungberg -- Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie (Gael Clichy 76)

The Magpies: Shay Given -- Olivier Bernard (Charles N'Zogbia 87), Aaron Hughes, Titus Bramble, Steven Taylor -- Laurent Robert, Kieron Dyer, Jermaine Jenas, Lee Bowyer -- Shola Ameobi, Craig Bellamy

It wasn't exactly champagne football, but it is especially important for us to grind out results like this away from home. In an overall sense, the clean sheet is a very nice bonus...our defense was quite good positionally and handled the few set pieces that came along with aplomb. But, I suppose we're lucky in another sense that the Magpies are so ravaged with injury...I'm not sure we would have kept a clean sheet against a full-strength Newcastle team. While they have some interesting young talent for the future, they still don't have strength of depth here in the present tense. Therefore, the Gunners were only threatened on a few occasions, most of them coming in the first half.

Before I go further, I'd like to get the peripheral stuff out of the way. First, I have to say that I quite enjoy Alan Parry and David Pleat as a team. When I was first starting to become a rabid fan of this league, whether it be by chance or whatever, Parry ended up calling many of the games that I watched in those nascent stages. Besides the fact that he's a great commentator in general, to me, he's pretty much the voice of English football. As for Pleat, yeah yeah, I know he's strongly associated with the Lily White Scum. And, he certainly does subtly cheerlead against us at times. But, as far as color commentators go (and that is a pretty new concept in England, right? I always remember there being just one guy doing commentary per match...outside of the odious Andy Gray, that is), he's probably the best I've heard so far. Funny how a guy who was such a poor manager can so accurately pick apart the important factors and themes in any given match. They seem to have a pretty good chemistry in the booth as well...Parry knows when to let Pleat talk (although "ramble" might be closer to the proper description) and when to get things back on track. I expect many more quality performances out of those two in matches to come.

The other thing I wanted to get to is the referee, Steve Bennett. I've mentioned several times here and on the Arseblog forums that I believe him to be one of the best referees in England. And, he certainly did nothing to prove me wrong in this match...he was absolutely fantastic. As the announcers mentioned several times, St. James' Park is a hard place to be the man in the middle...50,000 people screaming and chanting can be unspeakably intimidating for the referee. If he isn't careful, the crowd could end up being the ones to referee the match. Anyone who has ever watched a match involving Manshit United at Old Trafford can attest to this. However, events in the match caused a lot of calls to go against Newcastle in succession. And, to Bennett's immense credit, he didn't buckle under the booing and the general whining crybaby shit (both from the fans and that annoying little prick Lee Bowyer). Also, he didn't artifically call any fouls on Arsenal to "even it up." I absolutely agree with that approach...if a side commits 4 straight fouls, then it's 4 straight fouls. Likewise, in the second half, Arsenal were consistently fouling Newcastle, and the final tally ended up being like 20-10 Arsenal...or in that range, at least. In short, he had a fantastic game and deserves the plaudits for it.

Right then, on to the match.

One of the most appallingly-overused cliches about football is "it's a game of two halves." Well, this game was a game of one half. The first 45 minutes were the best of what the English league can provide...up-and-down, frenetic, pulsating stuff. People flying into tackles, great defensive performances, wonderful bits of individual skill from Pires and Henry. Then, the second half came around, and that sure was 45 minutes of people wandering up and down the pitch. Newcastle couldn't break the Arsenal down, and very intelligently, Arsenal didn't waste too much effort holding them at bay (thus, they should be fine for the rest of the holiday fixture list).

Interestingly, Arsenal flew out of the gates, and Newcastle looked like the away side for the first 15 minutes. They weathered that storm and slowly started to make a few probing runs the other way, but it was still the Arsenal who had most of the possession. As Pleat said, Arsenal ruthlessly bossed the midfield, and did a far better job of getting the ball into dangerous positions on the wing. Then again, I don't know what good that would have done the Magpies anyway...on the right was The Hideously Overrated Lee Bowyer, and on the left is Laurent Robert, who is great when you're winning but is a glaring liability otherwise. Their best offensive option was the old Route One, with Shola Ameobi playing the unlikely part of the center forward. Here, I believe the commentators were incorrect...Ameobi won a few headers against Sol Campbell, and they made it seem like he was decisively winning that battle. Ummm...no...he would have had to create some real chances to do that. He only had the one to speak of, early on. Ameobi won a header off a long ball, made some room for himself, and sent a pretty nice shot towards the low corner. But, Almunia was in good position, he did a great job of seeing the shot through some traffic, and he dived very well and very quickly down to his right to fist it away. Great, great save from the Spaniard. If he continues on like this, Jens Lehmann will be back in Germany by the middle of January.

Believe it or not, the best player by far for Newcastle was their young right back, Steven Watson. He's just 18, but he was fearless when called upon to stave off Henry and Pires. While he got beaten several times, there isn't much shame in getting beaten by one of those two. And, he stopped them far more than some right backs have, that's for sure. He also got up the field in the second half and gave it a pretty good go on the one shot he had. Definitely a player to watch for the future, that one.

For our part, it was the Freddie and Flamini show in midfield...battling performances from both allowed Pires time and space to work his magic. Henry had a few tricks up his sleeve as well, but none of it resulted in goals. Some of it was the last touch failing us, but it was mainly Newcastle uncharacteristically giving a spirited performance on the backline. When the goal came, it was actually the result of a fortitous bounce. The preceding action was Arsenal getting the ball off a Newcastle throw-in or free kick (forget which) and beginning another attack that seemed easy enough for the home side to repel. Paddy Vieira's first strike of the ball caromed off a Newcastle guy and came right back to him. Undaunted, the skipper just volleyed it right towards the net from a pretty decent distance out. Now, while it was a great shot and a marvelous bit of skill, it would almost certainly have been saved in normal circumstances. Just given the pace and placement of it (while both were excellent), it would actually be a comfortable save if the keeper was ready for it and in the right place. Shay Given, luckily for us, was neither. I imagine that the slight deflection might have put him off some, but it happened so quickly...I can't imagine why he was all the way over on the his left-hand side of the net. Maybe he was anticipating the shot getting through or whatever, but the resulting volley left him flat-footed and completely out of position. He recovered quickly enough to make a decent dive for it, but he was never saving it at that point. It ended up in the top center part of the net, and given normal circumstances, would have been tipped over the bar 90% of the time. Still, 1-0 to the Arsenal it was.

I know I've rambled a bit, but that was because the second half had very few talking points. Laurent Robert could have forced them back into the game several times, but his corners and free kicks were absolute shit (unsurprisingly, as he sure does turn back into a pumpkin when times are tough). Graeme Souness (who I don't even come close to rating as a manager) did absolutely nothing to change things up and force Arsenal on the back foot. He didn't make a substitution until the 87th minute, and that came only because Bernard got hurt. Now, I know he had a ridiculously young bench and all. But, given that Newcastle was not threatening at all in the second half, and guys like N'Zogbia and Milner have no shortage of potential, why not throw them on there for 20 minutes and see if they have what it takes? Doing it the way he did it, they still lost. Meanwhile, Arsene decided to trust guys like Fabregas and van Persie and Kolo Toure in big situations, and it has worked out brilliantly.

By the way, Lee Bowyer is a diving, cheating asshole.

The other thing that mystifies me about Newcastle's tactics is the way they went about the "away team at home" routine. Whenever lower-end teams have had success against us, they have done it by packing the midfield with 5 guys and cutting off the source of all of our offensive might -- the passing game that starts in the midfield. If you choke off the passing channels for Pires and Freddie and Vieira, you won't have to worry too much about Henry, as he won't even get the ball most of the time. Also, if you can keep Pires and Freddie where they are, that means that Cole and Lauren can't make runs forward, thus forcing the whole team back. Inertia is a motherfucker sometimes, especially in this sport. Arsenal are at their best when they're flowing forward. Block the flow a bit, and you immediately downgrade our entire offense. If I were Souness, I would have had the same four guys in the back, and went with 5 in the midfield. You could even do that two different ways. You could have Bellamy on the right wing and move Bowyer back to the middle (isn't that his preferred position, anyway?). Or, you could play four across the middle and have Bellamy withdrawn a bit, in the hole behind the striker. In that case, you don't have to launch long balls to get Ameobi involved...you can counter-attack and push up the field, and then use Bellamy to roam around the pitch and try and get a cross into the box for Ameobi to get on the end of.

Either way, it's a good win for us, and an important one at that. I will try to make it to Nevada's in time for the New Year's Day fixture against Fulham...that is, if I want to begin 2005 by handing over 10 bucks to those Setanta bastards. We'll see.

Have a fun and aafe New Year's. See you after the ball drops.


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