Finally, after a very long week since Arsenal beat Hull City 3-nil at the KC stadium (in a preview of the FA Cup final) the team will play another match. This time it will be Newcastle United coming to the Emirates for a Monday Night match. I attended this fixture last season and it fell on another weeknight, albeit during the crowded festive period. That one ended with was a crazy 7-3 score-line featuring a Theo Walcott hat-trick. Olivier Giroud almost matched Theo’s display coming off the bench and netting two, with only the post denying a 3rd. Also scoring that night were Lucas Poldolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It was a gaudy score-line and a total we haven’t come to close to equaling since, but it was also a particularly unconvincing night, especially at the defensive end. Three times we took a lead only to have it equaled. Also, the post-match salute to all corners of the stadium by Walcott, who had been allowing his contract to run down, seemed like a farewell. Despite the 7 goals, the team seemed somewhat at sea.
It was a very long time ago and much has changed since. Of course, much also has remained the same.
One of those elements is that both clubs, contrary to usual policy in the Premier league, are still managed by the same men. Arsene Wenger (16 years) and Alan Pardew (3) are the League’s two longest serving managers, but both have weathered intense times at their respective clubs. For Wenger, it was a long campaign to get his team into the Champions league places (including a nervy 1-nil at Newcastle to end the season) followed by a summer of great potential (“money to spend”), great disappointment (we didn’t spend any in picking up two French players, Yaya Sanogo and Mathieu Flamini). Finally, at the deadline, after a devastating opening match loss to Aston Villa and worries about winning a Champions League Qualifier (vs already banned Fenerbache) and squeaking past arch-rival Tottenham in a 1-nil, Wenger (somewhat, at least) mollified critics by obliterating Arsenal’s transfer record and bringing in Mesut Ozil for 50 million Euros. From those early season difficulties we had an upbeat Autumn but a slow unraveling as injuries (and no replacement buys in January) combined with big defeats against title contenders dumped us out of that race and have brought us to another series of nail-biters as the club tries to hold on (again) for Champions league qualification.
In this same period, Pardew, whose team was spirited but ultimately callow in the 7-3 result I witnessed, has ridden maybe even a greater tidal wave of ups and downs. The January directly after the loss at our place featured even more recruitment in the “Neufchateau” vein, bringing in French (and French speaking) talent, including Yoan Goufran, Mathieu Debuchy, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Moussa Sissoko. Although these buys somewhat made up for the loss of Demba Ba (who scored two that night but was subsequently bought by Chelsea), it must be remembered that Pardew and Newcastle were coming off a 6th place finish in the league. Despite the wave of purchases, Newcastle played poorly in the 2nd half of the season and only avoided being pulled into the relegation battle because other clubs (Reading, QPR and Wigan) played worse and went down rather easily.
This past summer Newcastle withstood transfer links (including many with Arsenal) over holding mid-fielder Yohan Cabaye and added another Frenchman (and long supposed Arsenal target), Loic Remy, on loan from QPR. The Autumn went well and Pardew had his men playing outstanding football. They sat well in the top half of the table with the highlights being 1-nil victories at Tottenham and Manchester United and a 2-nil home win over Chelsea. In their final match of 2013 they played Arsenal almost even, only to lose to a long free-kick from Theo Walcott which received the slightest of touches from Olivier Giroud.
Again, however, they’ve been in a free-fall since the turn of the year, losing Cabaye to Paris-St Germain in the January window, getting pounded in the Tyne-Wear derby (a 3-nil loss to Sunderland at St. James Park) and now having lost 5 league matches on the trot. This most recent period has been compounded by a touchline ban for Pardew following a head-butting incident against a Hull City player.
That ban finally comes to an end with our match, but Pardew, who exchanged shoves with Wenger in 2006 when he was in charge at West Ham, has promised a calmer demeanor. Meanwhile, our own manager, despite finally getting his men winning again in their last two matches and looking better for retaining Champions league qualification (thanks to Everton losing 2 of their most recent 3 matches) and having a post-season date in the FA Cup final, seems under more pressure than ever. Supporters demand more than merely treading water and the potential of lifting the domestic trophy seems insufficient relative to failing—with some big score-lines against—in both the title challenge and against the defending champions Bayern Munich (again) in the European tournament. Wenger, who has mysteriously been holding off on signing a contract extension, has promised to do so, but this news seems to be greeted with more weary resignation (if not outright anger) than excitement by a majority of Gooners.
But that is ALL background. There IS a match to be played and it’s actually an important one for Arsenal. (In fact, all of these remaining matches are important and the fact that they haven’t been played—and won—may be the essential reason Wenger hasn’t actually signed.) Who will we play and what should we expect from our opponents?
I believe we’ll see a line-up unchanged (or nearly so) from a week ago at Hull. Poldolski continues (how can you drop a guy who is scoring 2 goals per match?) as will the mid-field group, buzzing again with the returns of Ramsey and Ozil. It’s possible some game time will be given to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Kallstrom, Sanogo and/or Flamini, who all seem healthy or, in the case of the latter, is not suspended. According to Wenger, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere continue out injured but Tomas Vermaelen is available, so it’s possible that he might reprise his role at left back instead of Monreal, which seemed an effective set-up vs West Ham. Here is my best guess at the starters:
Newcastle, by contrast, seems to be limping into this confrontation. Mercurial MF/Forward Hatem Ben Arfa is reported to be either injured or sent back to France. Other injuries appear a near constant throughout the Newcastle line-up, but big man Shola Ameobi has been scoring and Loic Remy may want to try and impress Wenger. Overall, IF Arsenal play their game and limit their mistakes, they should be able to exert enough pressure over the 90 minutes to cause Newcastle to crack. Goalkeeper Tim Krul’s most recent clean sheet was vs Crystal Palace on 22 March; his last in a road match was at Norwich on 28 July. If we can breach his defenses and net one, others might follow and we could be in the clear. In other words, unlike the 7-3 free-for-all I attended on 29 December 2012, I’d expect a match much more like the one we played exactly a year later up in Newcastle where it took that Walcott free kick and Giroud glancing touch, plus a stout, unyielding defensive performance of our own, to see them off. Everton has gifted us a bit of breathing room in the race for 4th but I’d prefer a bit more. The sooner this CL qualification is settled, the better.
Finally, on a personal note… As much as I enjoyed all the goals in this fixture last season, the best part was meeting a fellow blogger—Arthur 3 Shedds (from another site, where I used to participate) and his wife, who acted as our guides and mentors. We met pre-match outside the Finsbury Park station (my boy wearing my Sagna 3 kit to serve as the identifying agent) and they took us up the Seven Sisters Road (into the area of North London where Arthur—not his real name—grew up) for a meal of Turkish food before returning to the stadium and the match. Fun as it was, they had a long train ride back that night (they live in Charlton these days) and invited us to their place later in the week. That was a nice time as well and meeting them was a real highlight of our time in London. My point is that personal meet-ups can be a great by-product of all this writing about our shared interest, our football club. My hope is that I can meet some of you folks for a match or elsewhere. (Lake Tahoe in the mountains of California, where I live, is a pretty primo place to visit….) As much as it’s a pleasure (and, at times, a pain…) to share thoughts about our club, the human element is what makes it all worthwhile.
So, some football!! (a match vs Newcastle). What do you think?
Written by: 17highburyterrace