The intriguing question in the run up to Saturday’s match between Newcastle and Arsenal appeared to be which side would be more affected and unbalanced by the late changes to their squad. Both sides lost key performers pre-match, Jose Enrique being sold to Liverpool and Arsenal’s Fabregas and Nasri being left out of the squad in expectation of impending transfers. In addition, another mainstay of Arsenal’s centre-midfield last season, Jack Wilshere, was ruled out by injury. The theory that Arsenal’s youth team could beat most clubs’ first 11, not just oft-repeated but also often proven true in the Carling Cup, suggested that Newcastle would miss their only senior left-back more than Arsenal would be hamstrung by the loss of their 3 top central midfielders thanks to the depth of the Gunners’ squad in this area.
However, while concerned by the lack of cover for Enrique’s departure, Newcastle’s summer transfer business had almost exclusively involved incoming midfielders. Cabaye in particular was much-heralded and had been impressive in pre-season, but Marveaux and Obertan are both also capable of playing a central attacking midfield role in addition to their more accepted positions as wide men. With Cheik Tiote an impressive presence last season in a defensive midfield role, it seemed that with Cabaye alongside him there was an opportunity for Newcastle in this area, there being at least the possibility that the home side could exert an advantage. Playing with another advanced midfielder off a lone target man would only enhance the possibility of dominating Arsenal’s midfield.
From the very first minute however, it was plain that Newcastle had no intention of taking Arsenal on and trying to make the most of a possible advantage in a key area of the pitch. The 4-4-2 selected, with Ba and Ameobi the two up front, left Newcastle understrength in central midfield against Arsenal’s 4-3-3. Song, Rosicky, and Aaron Ramsey were given the freedom of the midfield third for long periods, especially in the first half, as Newcastle’s midfield dropped back to touching distance of their back four.
The result of Newcastle giving up the midfield was lots of virtually unchallenged Arsenal possession. However, the positive side of this was the resultant solidity of Newcastle. It became almost impossible to thread the ball through central areas and Newcastle possibly fancied themselves to deal with balls coming from the flanks, Arsenal offering little aerial threat. Though Ryan Taylor as Newcastle’s makeshift leftback was as expected frequently exposed in the first half by Gervinho and Arshavin, the impressive Coloccini mopped up everything that came from there effectively. For all their possession, Arsenal had few attempts on goal and virtually none troubling Tim Krul.
In the second half, Pardew attempted to engage in midfield a little more by replacing the ineffective Ba with Gabriel Obertan, without moving the team upfield appreciably. Obertan looked impressive when initially playing off Ameobi, both fast and clever on the ball while also showing good awareness, but faded when switched outside to allow Barton to move into the middle.
As an aside, my take on the Barton controversy is that he attempted to provoke Gervinho, who snapped and did something silly, Barton then making sure the referee spotted it. Song was attempting the same thing when stamping on Barton off the ball earlier, the difference being that Barton chose not to get himself sent off on that occasion. As much as I’d rather he hadn’t done it, all players do. Expecting any footballer to take the moral high ground in such a situation will leave you disappointed, though Joey Barton would possibly be the last to provide an exception. As we saw for much of last season though, Barton appears to be a special case with anything he does being focused upon while possibly worse actions by less infamous personalities slip by with little comment in comparison.
Pardew will probably be very pleased with a dull 0-0, and I would have taken that too before the game. It has to be remembered the way Newcastle were taken apart in the first 20 minutes in the same fixture last season, Arsenal ruthlessly exploiting space between both central defence and full backs and defence and midfield then. Pardew would have been aware that lightning would not have struck twice had Newcastle gone 4 goals down again yesterday. So despite the fact that the suspicion remains that there is more to come from the Cabaye-Tiote partnership, yesterday’s cautious showing was understandable. We will never know if he got things exactly right, or if a more aggressive stance might have won the game. The quality of the opposition excuses his decision in this case, and we move on to a game in which more will be expected, the Wear-Tyne derby next Saturday.