Let’s start off today with a good ol’ fashioned footballing cliche, eh? How about the one about football being a ‘game of two halves? Because that’s certainly what was served up by our boys in red and white yesterday and thankfully the latter was better than the former for us fans, resulting in three points, three goals, as well as a nice clean sheet to go with it as well.
Sky even said that this was the fifth game in a row in which we’d kept a clean sheet which, if I am right, is the first time that has happened since 2009 I think. Now that’s a stat that both surprises and delights in equal measure.
And after another win yesterday against a clearly struggling Newcastle United team, it was good to see that we weren’t in the ‘giving’ mood on a chilly January evening in North London. We’re now in tenth, halfway through the season, have a bit of form behind us, as well as some of the bigger players stepping up and getting goals. After the second half performance – which i’ll come to after a bit of a dissecting of the first – it feels like we have a bit of momentum too.
It threatened to be a little different though, didn’t it? Arteta made a couple of interesting changes in giving starts to Cedric and Partey, but aside from that it was the same side that struggled against Palace and the message to his players was clearly “you’ve got another opportunity to expunge the memories of the Crystal Palace game, so go out there and show me what you’ve got”. Unfortunately what we had in that first half wasn’t a lot and the tempo of the team was perhaps the most worrying of all for me. We slotted back in to a high volume of possession but little incision and in that first half it felt like Crystal Palace had handed over the low-block playbook to Newcastle, such was their success at stopping us from creating chances. Aubameyang should have scored after a ball across from the right hand side that Darlow got the slightest of touches to deflect from him, but even then a player with Auba’s ability you’d have thought would be able to turn home the ball from the position he was in.
I’ll be honest with you; I had some genuine concerns that Auba’s problems were deeper than getting no service in that first half. Whereas in previous games he just hasn’t had the shooting opportunity, I think in that first half he had three decent enough chances and didn’t get the end product we – and he – were all desperate for. I wondered if this was an unravelling I was seeing. That’s the prerogative of the football fan I guess; we immediately go to worst case scenario (just watch Fever Pitch and you can see what I’m talking about) and in my head this was the beginning of a depressing decline for Aubameyang.
At halftime I slammed my fist down on the dining room table and got a telling off from the Management. Frustration was setting in. Was I going to have to endure another 45 minutes of tortuous football? Was the positive run over and now we were going to go back into the ‘negative spiral’? Could Arteta gee up the team to show a response in the second half?
Yes. Yes he could.
We were a different team in that second half. It felt like we moved the ball quicker, there was an urgency about the team and even the world’s slowest mover of the ball – David Luiz – looked to be about a second or two quicker in his distribution. Saka and Smith-Rowe began to see more ball and the team looked like they were clicking. But what was also crucial was that we scored early in that second half. If that second half would have remained goalless for 15 minutes I think we’d have started to see doubt creep in. But we scored on 50 minutes and what a fine finish it was from Auba to allay my irrational football fan fears. Picking up a pass from Partey he travelled a good 20 yards with it and just when I thought he had gone a little too wide on his left hand side, he unleashed that fierce shot to put us one up. A great finish from a great striker and as soon as that went in you could see we took it up a gear.
We began to pass with more freedom, we were creating chances and forcing Darlow in Newcastle’s goal into saves, whereas in the first half we had hardly troubled him at all. The ball was moved quicker and players like Smith-Rowe started to dictate. And it was the two Hale End youngsters who effectively sealed the game with fine link up play similar to the West Brom goal that was scored by Saka. What I love about Smith-Rowe is his close ball control. When he picked the ball up on the left hand side it was on the touchline and he looked like he was being marshalled well by the Newcastle defender. But he’s got a turn of pace about him when the ball is at his feet and that’s why he was able to travel with it in to the box, because the defender knew he couldn’t make a lunge as the kids feet are too quick. His drive was good, his turn of pace was good, his pass to Saka was spot on and Saka finished well. It was a well-worked goal and if these two can grow together and both remain fit, we have quite an attacking duet coming along, I have to say.
The game was done at that stage but there was still plenty of time in the match for more goals. Lacazette was unlucky not to score from a header but it was Auba who would seal the deal after a superb run from Cedric on the right. Whisper it quietly, but he easily had his best game in an Arsenal shirt and he was one of the best players on the night. His run and ball across gave Auba his second goal and a tap in.
We were on the GunnersTown post match pub last night and Dave mentioned that it spoke to the second half performance that there were so many players we weren’t really talking about, but all who had a good game. Xhaka was decent I thought and Partey was coolness personified on the ball. Tierney had another good performance on the left and was a threat getting beyond his man. IN defence Holding did well too. It all serves to highlight just how good the team was in that second half.
We now have the rest of the week before playing on Saturday lunchtime against either Southampton or Shrewsbury in the FA Cup. I think we all know it will probably be Southampton, which would mean a double header within three days of each other, so it’ll be interesting to see how the next ten days play out for both teams.
Catch y’all tomorrow. Up the Arsenal.