Arsenal vs. Newcastle United: Where the Game Will Be Won
Newcastle's exceedingly poor start to the season continued on Boxing Day, as the Magpies lost a thriller for the ages, 4-3, to Manchester United. With a meager 20 points from 19 games, they are only five points above the relegation zone.
While Arsenal's start to the season has been rocky to say the least, the Gunners are currently three points off of fourth place with a game in hand. Three consecutive Premier League wins have given them a little Christmas boost, which fans hope will carry into the New Year.
It's important to examine and understand the main reason why Arsenal have had such an uptick in form.
It makes a modicum of sense that most games are won and lost in midfield. While each defense and forward line is generally separated, the two teams' midfields are left to fight for possession, and thus control of the game.
When Newcastle played Manchester United a few days ago, both sides left all of their energy on the pitch, but one side had a clear possession advantage.
Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick helped United get 61 percent of the ball, which helped provide the edge in an otherwise even encounter.
Javier Hernandez, of course, struck at the stroke of 90 minutes to win the game for the Red Devils.
Thus, while possession isn't everything, and chances still need to be finished, possession is the most critical component of the game. Dominate it, control it and use it positively, and one has a much greater chance of winning.
That's where the real battle between Arsenal and Newcastle will be fought—right in the center of the Emirates Stadium pitch, with some of the smallest guys left to do the fighting.
Both teams typically employ a trio of midfielders to fluidly dictate the pace of play and create chances.
Alan Pardew could put out Cheick Tiote, a replacement for the injured Vurnon Anita and James Perch (the latter in the team because of Hatem Ben Arfa's hamstring injury).
Arsene Wenger will almost certainly counter with his increasingly feared, rapidly jelling combination of Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla.
On paper, the latter three are better, but Newcastle are eminently capable of giving them a fight. Newcastle's main advantage is physicality: If they can't pass around an opponent, they'll go through them.
Tiote is an exemplar of this strategy. The only man at Arsenal who can match up with his stout physique and crunching strength is Emmanuel Frimpong, but the Ghanaian is currently with Charlton Athletic on loan.
Newcastle's approach would be much more nuanced if the technical, tricky Hatem Ben Arfa was in the team, but he looks to be out until the new year, at least with regards to the starting XI.
But the Gunners do not usually wilt in the face of sheer force. When they're taken out of their rhythm, constant pressing high up the pitch usually is the reason why.
However, a physically taxing match against Manchester United a few days earlier might preclude Newcastle from employing this strategy for the full 90 minutes.
Arsenal, as we know by now, try to beat opponents with technically proficient play, and that starts with the midfield.
Mikel Arteta is the beating heart of the side. His metronomic presence at the back—despite being an atypically small defensive midfielder—keeps the Gunners ticking.
Jack Wilshere is the dynamic box-to-box man who serves as the essential pivot between defensive midfield and attacking midfield. He is usually the one drawn into sticky situations with defenders, but he, more than anyone else, has the creative nous to get out of them.
Wilshere will hand the ball off to Santi Cazorla, the creative linchpin. The diminutive Spaniard might be the most talented of all of Arsenal's options. His ability to drift out wide gives the attack the fluidity necessary to break down Premier League defenses.
Sometimes this approach works, and sometimes it does not. When Arteta's distribution is unusually poor, Wilshere is constantly surrounded by a wall of defenders and Cazorla loses his creative touch, Arsenal tend to lose.
The Gunners' 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur back in November showed this corps working perfectly; their humiliating 2-0 loss to Swansea demonstrated the opposite.
We shall see which story unfolds on Saturday, but Arsenal largely hold their fate in their own hands.
Technically outsmart Newcastle, and they stand a very good chance of taking all three points. Allow pressure and physicality to disrupt their rhythm, and the Gunners might end 2012 on a very sour note.
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