Evening all. So despite playing very poorly, Arsenal have pulled two points clear at the top of the Premier League after Laurent Koscielny’s winner gave us a 1-0 win over Newcastle, whilst Leicester City were held to a goal-less draw at home by Bournemouth.
The result was also our 100th 1-0 win of the Premier League era, yet there can’t have been too many in which we were as bad performance-wise as this afternoon. We made Steve McClaren’s side look like Barcelona, as we struggled for fluency in our passing and to create meaningful goal-scoring chances.
That said, how often have you heard the old adage that ‘champions pick up points even when they play badly’? Loads of times, that’s how many, so let’s hope today was more evidence we can indeed win the title rather than a sign some of our players just aren’t very good.
Arsene Wenger made three changes to his starting line-up from last Monday’s win over Bournemouth; Koscielny replaced Gabriel in defence, Nacho Monreal was restored at left-back with Kieran Gibbs dropping to the bench, and Mathieu Flamini came into midfield at the expense of Calum Chambers.
At a rain-soaked Emirates stadium, the visitors enjoyed the better of the first half in terms of scoring opportunities and not for the first time this season, we had Petr Cech to thank for making crucial saves with our back four beaten.
But the stop that sticks out came in the second period, when Mesut Ozil gave the ball away in midfield, Newcastle broke forward and as our defence parted with worrying ease, Ayoze Perez threaded a pass through to put Georginio Wijnaldum one-on-one with Cech.
Thankfully, by the time the Dutch midfielder composed himself and shot, Cech had already raced off his line to close down the target and the ball ricocheted off his body and to safety. It was an intervention as valuable as a goal at the other end and illustrated, yet again, the value of having a truly great keeper between the sticks.
Yet despite being horribly off the pace and off our game, we managed to take the lead with 17 minutes left on the clock. Ozil swung in a corner from the right and the ball was headed upwards by their left-back. Olivier Giroud managed to get his head on it first as it dropped and send it towards the far post, where Koscielny ghosted infront of his marker to volley home, on the stretch, with all the six-yard-box prowess of Gerd Muller in his prime. It was more than harsh on the visitors but who cares? Not me.
Aaron Ramsey should have then added a late second but having beaten two defenders inside their penalty box, he club-footed a great chance wide when he had Joel Campbell and Hector Bellerin free to his right begging for a tap-in. The pair of them threw a little strop and who can blame them? If you shoot in that situation you better score and Ramsey didn’t. But we held on for the win and moved clear at the top. It was just a shame Manchester City scored two late goals at Vicarage Road to turn defeat into victory against Watford and take the cherry off our New Year cake.
After the game, Arsene discussed the game and sympathised with Newcastle, telling the BBC:
We were not at our best but we had to dig deep and we can do that when needed. If you are down there (in the table, like Newcastle) then those are the matches you lose but they will not stay down there – they are a good team. It was about solidarity, tired legs and taking a chance from a set piece. We were not at our best today, but over Christmas in four games we took nine points so we can look back and say we did 75% of our job as we lost at Southampton.
Which is just as well when you look at our remaining fixtures in January. After the FA Cup tie at Sunderland on Saturday, we travel to Liverpool and then Stoke, before entertaining a rejuvenated Chelsea in our next three Premier League fixtures.
So to have emerged two points clear from the festive period gives us some room for error over the next few weeks, even if nine points from nine is obviously what we’ll be striving for.