Saturday, 17 March 2012

Tooned-in: Gunners leave it late but grab the points against Newcastle

The atmosphere at the final whistle on Monday night at the Emirates was nothing short of incredible as Arsenal rallied to come from behind (again) to beat a dogged and resolute Newcastle side, scoring a dramatic winner deep into added time.

At the moment the team seem to want to make the fans sweat for victory. The game seemed all set to play out for a momentum-sapping and frustrating home draw until Thomas Vermaelen embarked on a last ditch box-to-box run that came straight out of an Indiana Jones film, arriving with perfect timing at the far post to crash home Theo Walcott's rocket-propelled cross from the right. Ninety-five minutes in and the crowd duly erupted – it was certainly the most frenzied and jubilant celebration I've seen at home this season. The chap in Row 21, Block 25 of the Clock End jumped on my back in excitement and all around me fans pogoed in collective delight. At last the Emirates is starting to feel like home.

The team undoubtedly deserved the win – a look at the stats will tell you that, with 26 attempts on goal from the home side compared to four from the Toon. Robin van Persie again led from the front, and was well supported by Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky, who were both excellent. The Czech in particular has reached a new level in his Arsenal career of late, showing class, composure and a degree of attacking intensity hitherto only glimpsed occasionally. Suddenly the high regard in which he is held back in his homeland and by Dortmund fans – recent Arsenal signing Thomas Eisfeld being one example – seems fully justifiable. Cynics might say he's picked the right time to come into form, given the fact that he has just been awarded a new contract, but I would say it probably has far more to do with an injury-free run in the team and a regular (central) starting berth. As long as he keeps playing like a turbo-charged Luka Modric I'll be happy, anyway.

The return of genuine full backs in Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs has also had a noticeably positive impact in restoring width to the side, something conspicuously lacking a month or so ago when goalscorer Thomas Vermaelen was being stifled as a makeshift left back. As such Arsenal made good use of the expansive Emirates pitch, pulling Newcastle around mercilessly, particularly in the second half. They had gone in 1-1 at half-time, a bright start seemingly undone with a good finish from the tricky Hatem Ben Arfa that beat Szczesny at his near post. The response from the Gunners was immediate and emphatic, however. The captain took matters into his own hands and levelled less than a minute later with an equally fine goal. Walcott supplied the ball from the right, and van Persie showed deft touch and control on the edge of the area, finding enough room to evade defender Mike Williamson and shoot low past Tim Krul.

That consolidated the team's collective sense of belief and the second half was almost all Arsenal as they enjoyed long spells of possession, fashioning a series of half-chances that left Newcastle reeling, without quite managing to deliver the coup de grâce. Fortunately, it came. But was it simply luck? Well, a little, but the fact that the Gunners seem to be flatly refusing to lose at present is immensely satisfying. They could and should have been a bit more clinical – van Persie, Rosicky and substitute Gervinho all fluffed late chances – but a certain Belgian epitomised the spirit coursing through the team when he embarked on a lung-busting gallop to undo Newcastle at the death. I've often thought that Arsenal should follow up better for the second ball, particularly when it breaks in the box, and never was the advantage of a spare man in that area more evident than on Monday night.

The only negative aspects of the match were the elements of gamesmanship that were evident between the two Dutchmen on the field, RvP and Newcastle keeper Tim Krul. Krul seemed upset by the fact that our number 10 stood a bit close to him when he was kicking (a striker's prerogative, surely?) and attempted to rile the Arsenal for the rest of the game with an increasingly ridiculous bout of time wasting, taking an inordinately long time to put the ball back into play. As the Telegraph's Henry Winter eloquently put it in his match report, he “could not have taken a more languid approach to goal-kicks had he dressed as Noel Coward, donned a smoking jacket and composed some pithy lines while preparing to kick downfield”. It was a source of equal frustration to RvP and watching Gunners fans alike, particularly given referee Howard Webb's apparent reluctance to do anything about it.

Given this negativity, the victory was all the sweeter. Admittedly the captain's reaction to the Verminator's goal wasn't all that sporting, delivering some "choice words" to Tim Krul, but it was also entirely understandable. Unfortunately it developed into a small bout of handbags that slightly marred an otherwise glorious vision of red-and-white jubilation at the Emirates. Still, five league victories on the spin is a great run, made all the more impressive by the fact that Arsenal have come from behind to win in the last four – a Premier League record in itself. They need to carry this belief on into the next game against Everton – which doesn't take place until Thursday thanks to FA cup action this weekend - and beyond as the chance to beat the faltering Spuds to third place, now only a single point ahead in the table, seems all the more achievable. And I never thought I'd be saying that this season. Traditionally – or certainly in recent seasons, anyway – this is a time when Arsenal begin to fall away. For once they are beginning to buck that trend and although we will again end up trophyless this season, a strong finish from now until mid-May would be a success of sorts, and definitely a sign that this is a team with genuine quality.