Saturday, 13 December 2014

Arsenal v Newcastle United Preview

Arsenal's roller coaster season continues today when they play at home to Newcastle in the Premier League. The low of last Saturday's defeat to Stoke and the abysmal first half performance was countered with the 4-1 win away to Galatasaray on Tuesday night. The three points dropped to Stoke were a lot more important though as the result in Turkey had no effect on Arsenal's final position in their Champions League group. 

They ended up second behind Borussia Dortmund on goal difference with the damage being done when they drew 3-3 at home to Anderlecht after leading 3-0 with 30 minutes left. That game has come to signify Arsenal's season so far as it highlighted their awful defending at times and the inability to change things when they are going wrong. They did manage to make those changes against Stoke at half time, but could only pull back two of the three goal deficit.

Arsenal are still only four points outside the top four with the season nearly halfway completed and a top four finish is still well within their reach. There's nothing in particular to fear from any of the teams from third place down and most of the teams they thought would be challenging for a top four place are behind them. Liverpool, Everton and Spurs have had even worse starts to their season than Arsenal, but that in no way excuses the mistakes Arsenal have made on the pitch or in the transfer market for that matter.

When Thomas Vermaelen was sold the squad was short of two centre backs and Arsene Wenger said he would address the issue before the window closed. He failed to do so and the team has seen a succession of players forced to fill in as a central defender and most of them have not been up to the task. With Arsenal's injury record it was madness to gamble on having no central defensive injuries or suspensions from August to January and some would say it was negligence on the manager's part.

His inability to properly strengthen the defensive part of the squad is the biggest factor in the teams current league position and their failure to win their Champions League group. Arsenal need to sign a quality central defender on the first day that the window reopens, but the chances are they will be scraping for a bargain in the final minutes before the window closes. It's not too late to undo some of the bad work that last summer's inactivity cost, but there are a lot of games to be won and lost in January.

It's a shame that a team with Alexis, Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey should have their sights set as low as vying for fourth place, but it's a fact of life with Arsenal. The signing of Alexis made it look like the club were going to finally have a strong enough team to challenge for the whole season, but all of the other transfers were only replacements for departures with Vermaelen not even replaced. Those poor decisions in the summer could be highlighted yet again today when Arsenal play Newcastle.

It looks like both Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal will be absent and that leaves the manager with a real headache. Thankfully Mathieu Debuchey made his comeback from injury against Galatasaray and it has to be hoped he's up to playing another game so quickly and probably as a central defender too. The only real options at the back would seem to be playing Debuchey beside Per Mertesacker with Hector Bellerin at right back and Kieran Gibbs at left back as Calum Chambers is suspended after his red card last Saturday. To say it's a makeshift defence is an understatement but I doubt very much if any other players can even be considered for the defence.

The big question could be who plays in goal as Emiliano Martinez did so well when Wojciech Szczesny was out injured and does not deserve to be dropped in my opinion. Szczesny came back on Tuesday night, but Martinez would have played that game if Szczesny hadn't missed the previous three games through injury. I think the role should stick with a keeper who has done well when he has got his chance.

Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey should continue in midfield as long as Ramsey is suffering no effects from Tuesday night and the chances are Santi Cazorla will play in front of them. With the news of Francis Coquelin returning from his loan at Charlton it's quite possible Ramsey will miss out or Coquelin could even play in defence as he has done before. I thought Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did very well in that role on Tuesday and offered something different to Arsenal's usual approach. Galatasaray made it easy for Arsenal by playing a high line and I can't see Newcastle or many other teams playing that way against Arsenal.

They will defend in depth and numbers and hope to hit Arsenal on the break and it's a tactic which works against Arsenal all too often and far too easily at times. How many times do Arsenal do all the pressing and then concede with their opponents first attempt on target. Maybe it's just a perception on my part, but it certainly seems that way far too often.

The Arsenal attacking trio will include Alexis and Arsenal always have a chance when he is in the side no matter how they are playing. It's probably a straight choice between Oliver Giroud and Danny Welbeck for the central role with Chamberlain most likely in the right. It is possible both Giroud and Welbeck will play as Chamberlain is quite often the player who misses out although I think he should start a lot more often. 

Newcastle have injury issues of their own and hopefully Arsenal can take advantage of any weaknesses they have as a result. They had a very bad start to their season, but turned things around very quickly and have made themselves a hard team to beat. They did Arsenal a huge favour last week by putting an end to Chelsea's aspirations of matching the Invincibles of 2004, but Arsenal can have no sympathy for them today.

Even with all of their injuries there's still enough quality in the Arsenal team to win this game and go to Liverpool next week on the start of a good run which is needed to kick start the rest of the season. I think Arsenal will win and Alexis will make the difference after his week off. There have been some high scoring games between these two teams in the recent past but I expect a close and cagey game with Arsenal hopefully edging it. Fingers crossed that it's the start of a good festive programme for the team, but you just never know with Arsenal at the moment.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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