13.08.11 – Saturday – 5:30pm
Early prospects: Unproven.
Waffle: Newcastle kick off their second consecutive season back in the Premier League with a televised visit from Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. After the standard pre-season of fraught nerves, high tensions and bickering the focus finally turns back to where everything ultimately matters – the pitch. And it couldn’t come any sooner, with an underwhelming incoming head count so far making it easy to overlook the positive increase of available ability – particularly in midfield which now looks stronger than ever. However, the fears are certainly not unfounded with the much promised ‘no 9′ striker yet to have walked through the old Milburn entrance, casting an understandable shadow of doubt about where the goals will come from.
A steady start is imperative to soothing frayed nerves and the fixture computer has done us no favours to this end – presenting NUFC with an Arsenal side who have not lost an opening day fixture since a 1-0 loss to the makems at the Stadium of Light, 11 long years ago. Couple this with NUFC having not won an opening day fixture since beating Bolton at the Reebok 2007 (going back to 2006 since our last opening day SJP win) and signs look a little ominous for our already embattled manager. But no matter how downtrodden a pre-season can make a football fan feel, every opening day brings renewed hope and optimism – and even if it doesn’t last long it’s up to those in the stands now to abandon their misgivings and support those on the pitch relentlessly. We only need look back to last season as to how positive an effect it can have…
The Team: A traditional powerhouse, the pressure has increased substantially upon Arsenal this summer with the spoilers spending power of Manchester City already having prized away Gael Clichy and has seriously unsettled Samir Nasri – all this to go with Barcelona’s unrelenting interest in Cesc Fabregas looking likely to pay off soon. With key established stars leaving with the anticipation of not being adequetly replaced, Arsenal find themselves in a strangely familiar position to ourselves.
Probable line-ups: Newcastle subject to interpretation with the absence of Hatem Ben Arfa leaving a hole which could be easily filled by the dog-house dwelling Joey Barton, but will most likely be given to Dan Gosling, with this game being perhaps a step too much for Haris Vukic despite impressive pre-season displays. With Arsene Wenger playing his cards close to his chest, Arsenal could potentially welcome Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny and Samir Nasri back to their first XI – although the latter has reportedly showed distinct signs of having his mind elsewhere in pre-season games.
By the end of this transfer window Arsenal could lose some genuine world class talent in the way of Fabregas and Nasri. As difficult as these two will be to replace Arsenal are by no means seriously weakened and remain a formidable opposition, with the shrewd Arsene Wenger remaining steadfast that youth products are the way to replenish the playing stock. Those wanting to argue against his stubbornness need only look back to the same argument being made when Patrick Vieira was sold and a young Cesc Fabregas stepped up to fill the void – much the same way Jack Wilshere has been groomed to do the same. Had Arsenal only delivered a trophy on one of the many occasions they have been within literal touching distance of one in the last 5 years, there would not be a question mark to have of the policy.
The AFC squad oozes class and its qualities are there for all to see – their fluent passing and attacking movement saw them rack up an array of impressive statistics even in what they considered a disappointing season, including the joint best passing accuracy of any PL team (at 83% success), the most dominant possession of any PL team (at 59%), and averaging the 2nd most shots per game of any PL team – peppering the opposition’s goal an average 13 times a game. Despite our famous and unlikely come-back against Arsenal last season, this did not do much to dent the Gunners superb away record – with an unmatched and breathtaking away haul of 31 points. To put that into perspective that was five more points that NUFC managed at home – taking this opposition lightly whilst on your own turf is simply suicidal.
Notable dangers: Difficult to pick an individual given the squad’s status of flux with injuries and possible transfers – and also a little disingenuous to the talent on display as a whole. If available and selected, Robin Van Persie will be looking to carry his phenomenal goal scoring record on from the 2nd half of last season, which saw him equal the Premier League record of most goals scored from the turn of the year (18) and break the record for consecutive goals scored away from home, scoring in an unprecedented 12 fixtures in a row. However, Arsenal’s strength remains as a team unit, a possession dominant unit, with the ability to pick the slightest gap through a team and punish any team who does not pressure them on the ball. Newcastle would be heavily advised to stay compact and wary of Arsenal’s quick break, with five of the eight goals Arsenal scored at St James last season coming from quick counter attacks after turnover of possession in midfield – three of the five resulting simply from raw pace beating the offside trap.
Tactical suggestions: Arsenal’s midfield fluidity will undoubtedly cause NUFC issue if left unchecked, so the suggestion would be primarily to employ three central midfielders and sit them a little deeper whilst releasing the ball to the flanks as a prime outlet for going forward. The reasoning behind this is that Arsenal’s adoption of two deep lying midfielders invites opposition midfield forward (as shown right), thus creating space and leaving the opposition defence more exposed – space which is then exploited by the three operating behind the striker, and can be further bolstered to four by the adventure of one of the deeper midfielders during a quick turn over in possession.
The back line should attempt to remain more compact and invite Arsenal’s wide players to stay wide and deliver via their less preferred method of crossing – also playing to NUFC’s aerial strength at the back. As mentioned earlier, extreme care should be taken by the defensive line in preventing being breached by the though ball (AFC having averaged 10 through balls p/g last season) – personally I wouldn’t even consider employing the offside trap given Arsenal’s prolific exploitation of it. Finally, team mentality and aggression will be key to any success – the astonishing difference between how Arsenal play whilst pressured and whilst not being patently evident during the 4-4 draw last season, regardless of the man advantage on the day.
Final thought and gut feeling: Banish all sentiment of ‘that’ game last season – this will be entirely different prospect and a very tough start to the season: scoring start, but tight loss.
*Note: Squads are accurate at the time of writing – with the future of Samir Nasri in particular having the potential to change at any time up until kick-off on Saturday. With Jose Enrique on the verge of joining Liverpool, it is unclear who / if NUFC have to replace him, with PSV Eindhoven’s Erik Pieters heavily linked to do so.