Morning friends, hope we’re all good today, a day which for many of us will be the first back from the Christmas period after yesterday’s bank holiday.

I spent yesterday tidying away Christmas decorations and sorting the house out after the Christmas and New Year carnage, then in the evening decided to flick on the Brentford v Liverpool game as I was cooking. It was just kicking off in to the second half and I’ll be honest with you, I only switched it on to have in the background because I thought Liverpool would be cruising to victory. But I really should put a little more respect on Brentford’s name, because they are bloody hard to beat at home and as was proved last night, they do enjoy taking a scalp. Liverpool’s defeat means we are now 15 – that’s right, 15 – points clear of them in the league WITH a game in hand.

That’s mental. Well, clearly it’s not mental given the two respective sides’ form this season, but it still feels like such a crazy swing in such a short period of time. For the last few season’s we’ve spent our time looking up at Liverpool and City and making comments like “look at the gulf in class between the sides based on points” and “we’re miles away”. But here we are, just one Premier League season after being at round 17 of matches and finding ourselves 11 points off Liverpool on 40 points with us on 28 (having beaten West Ham on 15th December 2021 by two goals to nil), having completely turned around what over a year ago felt like a mountain to climb.

It has been a mountain of sorts. We have had the heartache of losing out on the Champions League places to The Scum, of being knocked out to Forest in the FA Cup and getting as far as the semi final of the League Cup then being knocked out by a Liverpool team gaming the COVID system to their own advantage with their ‘false positives’. Yet we now sit proudly atop the league, clear of City by seven points and tonight we face off against Newcastle United with a chance to make it ten if we can overcome a surprisingly excellent opponent in Newcastle.

In many ways their story is mirroring ours; expectations will have probably have been to get in to Europe as a step forward, but not really competing for honours at the top of the league just yet, so I suspect the Newcastle hierarchy and Eddie Howe are probably looking at their situation and thinking that they are maybe a year or 18 months away from where they wanted to be and the targets they had set. But they are sitting third on merit having lost just one game all season. They’ve picked up a few draws – one of which was a few days ago against Leeds, but their form has come from a foundation of a rock solid defence that doesn’t leak goals and a trajectory of existing attacking players who have suddenly exploded in to life.

This is going to be really touch tonight for us. Newcastle have conceded 11 goals all season and haven’t had the ball in their own net in their last five matches, which is a run stretching back to the beginning of November. With that strength in defence of Trippier, Schar, Botman (a fantastic signing in the summer) and Burn they have seemed impenetrable at times and I think it is because of that defence that we know what we will face this evening: a very dangerous counter-attacking side. Newcastle will have the confidence of their own back line to keep Arsenal out, but they will also know that we are at home and the pressure is on us to get the result, which may leave space to hit us on the counter and that’s where the likes of Almiron and Joelinton could cause us problems and I expect to see Calum Wilson return to the team tonight ahead of Chris Wood. That provides a very different and much more difficult threat for us because Wilson is more mobile and will be much more willing to make those counter attacking runs, so I am expecting our centre halves to have a tough time of it this evening.

It’s why I’m pleased, however, that Arteta made the subs that he made by bringing White and Zinchenko off, because it means they will be fresher. White in particular is a bonus because he’ll be able to tuck in and make a back three for us if needed. Then, if Zinchenko does start, he’ll spend more time in field and adding an additional layer of control for us in the middle of the park. The downside to that, however, is that Newcastle will probably see the space vacated by Zinchenko on the left and see it as a perfect place to hurt Arsenal, especially with Almiron in such good form.

They will get chances tonight and we have to hope our defence – who have only conceded three more than Newcastle and two of those we could have probably avoided against Brighton if we hadn’t changed up our team in the second half – can be as resolute and minimise the number of opportunities for the Magpies.

For us we have to see the continuation of the attacking quartet of Saka, Martinelli, Odegaard and Nketiah all firing on the same cylinders that they did against Brighton. We looked so potent going forward on New Year’s Eve, particularly in the first half, so I hope that we can continue that form. I also think that our right and Newcastle’s left could also be a fruitful avenue for us. Dan Burn is not a left back by trade and I seem to recall a couple of season’s ago Bukayo Saka giving him a torrid time by running at him when we played Brighton at the Amex and he was asked to step in at left back. He’s a big ol’ bloke at six foot and five inches but he’s not as mobile and nimble as Saka and so if I’m Arteta and Arsenal I’m looking at that side being an area we simply must look to exploit by getting in behind.

Perhaps that is where the tale of this match will unfold: a story between the two attacking teams and what they do on the right hand side of their respective attacks, up against two defences that are strong, but have floors in their left back position. Hopefully it is us that come through and pick up the points. The incentive is massive and the opportunity to put even more daylight between us and the chasing pack could be huge.

Will Arsenal take that opportunity though?

We shall find out soon enough.

Catch you all tomorrow for some post match thoughts.