If winning without playing well is the hallmark of champions, then Arsenal’s victory over Newcastle lends their title challenge a great deal of credibility.
This was not a great Arsenal performance. The Gunners were far from their fluent best. Injury robbed them of both Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, and Arsene Wenger’s team were unable to produce their usual incisive play in and around the penalty area.
However, this was a great Arsenal result.
Wenger: “There is something in the team which is special on that front, on the mental front, when many times we have been questioned." #Afc— George Caulkin (@CaulkinTheTimes) December 29, 2013
Going into the game, Newcastle were a team in form. In their last nine games, they had beaten the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United. For Arsenal to go to St James’ Park and come away with all three points is a hugely significant achievement.
For much of the match, the balance of play was finely poised, with both sides struggling to create goalscoring opportunities. Unsurprisingly, the winner emerged from a set piece rather than from open play. Theo Walcott’s wicked delivery found the head of Olivier Giroud, whose delicate flick crept beyond Tim Krul and into the net.
In truth, it was the first real chance that Arsenal have created. However, it proved to be the only one they needed.
It’s not entirely correct to say Arsenal played poorly at Newcastle. While they failed to find their attacking rhythm, their defending was resolute.
Per Mertesacker, Arsenal’s captain on the day, was particularly outstanding. According to Squawka, the German made 16 clearances. Many of those came in the last 10 minutes, as Newcastle turned to long-ball tactics to try to break Arsenal down.
Mertesacker, however, stood tall. Wenger switched Arsenal’s tactics, bringing on Carl Jenkinson and shifting Bacary Sagna inside to form a three-man defence alongside the giant German and Laurent Koscielny.
Wenger knew that this was not the day for Arsenal to chase more goals. Securing the points required rear-guard reaction. Newcastle toiled but could not find a way past the grimly determined Gunners.
There were a couple of late scares—Wojciech Szczesny’s clearance that struck Loic Remy had Arsenal hearts lurching into mouths—but Arsenal were able to see out the game and clinch the victory.
The win means that no side has won more Premier League points in the calendar year of 2013. Arsenal’s tally of 82 points demonstrates their remarkable consistency.
That's 18 away wins in all comps for Arsenal in 2013 (in 27 games), a record in a calendar year under Wenger.— David Wall (@1DavidWall) December 29, 2013
In the second half of last season, that form was good enough to ensure Arsenal made the top four. In the first half of 2013/14, it has catapulted them in title contention.
Arsenal will now enter the new year as Premier League leaders. The portents are promising: The last four sides to do so ended the season as champions.
If the Gunners continue to win without playing well, that trend could well be set to continue.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013/14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.