19 May 2013

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle: Koscielny rules the roost

May the gods and all other mysterious forces that govern the universe be praised for delivering Laurent Koscielny to us on this day. The Frenchman almost single-handedly made sure that Arsenal secured all three points in a tense contest that saw Newcastle threaten but never deliver on far too many chances. Were it not for Koscielny, we'd almost certainly have finished with a draw and might even have suffered a far-worse fate. Securing these three points became vital once Spurs went ahead of Sunderland, and, thanks to Koscielny's goal and all-around performance, we claimed them.

Fifteen minutes after Sunderland went down to ten men after a bad tackle from David Vaughan, and one minute before the end of regulation, Bale scored yet another last minute goal in all-too-familiar fashion: sweeping from right to left, just yards from the 18', he tapped the ball ahead and blasted one to  just inside the post. Everyone knew what was coming, but such is his quality that no one seemed able to stop it. That it wasn't enough to see them through actually makes me feel just a little bad for Spurs. Nah. Just kidding! I'll be celebrating this St. Totteringham's Day especially loudly. What's this now? Eighteen years in a row?

His goal made Koscielny's goal earlier in the day all the more vital. Without it, we'd have dropped to 5th place. In the 52nd minute, Walcott chipped a spot-kick into the box which Podolski looks to have headed forward, and Koscielny made a nifty little half-bicycle, beating Coloccini and glancing it off of a frozen Harper's head for the only goal of the afternoon.

It wasn't for lack of trying or chances, though. Walcott, for example, was one part unlucky, one part overdoing it when he flicked past Harper and hit the woodwork. After dribbling through three Toon defenders, I thought to myself, "he should've shot by now. Too many touches!" Then, when he did shoot, I thought, "ooh, one more touch would have put him past Harper". Truth be told, flicking right while moving left is a tricky one; he might have done better to go to the near post. Despite that, we really only put two shots on goal. In a game in which we knew we would need three points, either to stay ahead of Spurs or to overtake Chelsea, we looked strangely listless and ineffectual.

Of particular concern to me for most of the match was Per Mertesacker. Papiss Cissé regularly had his way with the big German, whether it was claiming loose balls, making runs, passing, shooting, whatever the case may have been. We have some poor finishing from him and the at-times dangerous Ben Arfa to thank for saving Mertesacker on more than one occasion. There were too many times when he got beat and seemed to jog far too casually to try to track down the player or the ball. I know that speed is not his forté, but even a slow man can be seen looking like he's running hard. Mertesacker absolutely trotted as if he was retrieving a frisbee in the park instead of chasing an opponent with the ball at his feet. Of course, were it not for Mertesacker's struggles, Koscielny would have found much less on his plate, and I do hope that Per treats Kos to something nice to thank him.

The scoreline shows Koscielny with two tackles, two interceptions, four clearances (two effective), and two aerial duels won. None of this seems to effectively capture the man's impact on the game. He simply dominated from end to end. In fact, he seemed to be the only player for either side who understood the importance of the match. I've written previously of Koscielny's importance to our success and have even wondered if he's ready to claim a spot among the Prem's best center-backs. It might still be a little early for that, even after today and after a string of strong performances to lock down our defense since mid-March. Thanks in part to his play and leadership, not to mention his partnership with, yes, Mertesacker, Sagna, Gibbs, Monreal, and Szczesny, our defense has emerged as the second-stingiest in the Prem, behind only Man City for goals-allowed. So improved has our defense been, in fact, that we conceded 12 fewer goals this season than last for an average of 0.98 goals per game. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The win means we finished the season having taken 26 of our final 30 points, climbing from as low as 10th place in December to claim 4th on the final day of the season. A fantastic finish, no doubt, and one that I hope propels us into next season with greater momentum, purpose, and consistency than this year. Qualifying for the Champions League was vital as it gives us that much more leverage in signing a few players to sharpen up the attack.

I think all of us were hoping for a match more similar to Wigan, one that would allow us to celebrate and shout and sing earlier and more often. This was a tense slog, but one that once again shows that we can win with flair or with grit. It may not have been pretty to watch, but it's a joyous outcome all the same. Let's sit back and savor it on that level, at least for a day or two. We can dissect it and the rest of the season in a few days' time. All season long, we've worried and wondered, and that's all over for now. Congrats, lads, on a well-fought season and a finish that all too many doubted would ever happen. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant!