28 April 2014

So that's what Arsenal looks like at full-strength...

...and it wasn't even full-strength. Still no Walcott or Wilshere, still no Diaby, Gnabry, Gibbs, or Vermaelen. Without quite claiming that we're back to full strength and admitting that Newcastle were perhaps even further from it than we are, it's telling just how much better we played and can play when we have options. With Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil back in the fold, we looked like a different team—more creative, more decisive, more dynamic—and the scoreline might actually do us a disservice on the day. Newcastle were overrun, plain and simple, but that takes nothing away from our performance, which was about as good as it's been since, well, since before we lost Ramsey... Özil... Walcott.... Wilshere.....

There was a moment, sublime, sumptuous, and simple, that seems to symbolize the season that could have been. At one point, Özil, racing Gouffran to the edge of the area, collected the ball and executed a smooth scissor-step into an inverted Cruyff-turn, leaving the man sliding helplessly on his arse and out of the play. It didn't lead to anything, but it reminded me of the audacity and verve he plays with, as well as the style and vision he injects. It came to nothing, but that's not the point. Everyone seemed invigorated and emboldened as they looked to each other and sized up the opposition. Although Newcastle did stymie us a bit in the early going, there was no 'squeaky-bum', grind-it-out element to this one,  Indeed. at times, it felt more like a foregone conclusion than a football match.

It started, perhaps fittingly enough, with a Koscielny goal. I'd call it a bookend to the goal he scored to close out last season, but that suggests an ending, a terminus, and this goal felt more like the reopening of something. A beginning. Coming off of a Cazorla free-kick, Koscielny sliced in and got the barest of touches to slip it in past Krul. From there, it felt more and more like this would be a cakewalk. Newcastle, coming in looking desperate, dispirited, and depleted, just never looked they were fully in it, and Kos's goal flattened what little fight they had brought. In fact, were it not for a half-dozen different attempts at another Norwichian pornogol di Wilshere, we might have gone for five or six goals, if not the seven we bagged the last time the Toon came to town.

It wasn't all tiki-taka or Wengerball or whatever name you wish to dub it. There were times when brute force announced itself, as when Giroud broke behind the Newcastle line (was he offsides? Mmmmaybe) to chase down a long ball and found himself face to face with Krul. He bludgeoned it twice from close range, with the second shot sluicing over to a wide-open Özil, who could simply poke it home. Poor Olivier. He worked so, so hard for that one only to see Özil pop in and, cool as a cucumber, reap the reward. Like Özil's dribble described above, it seemed symbolic, this time of one man's frustrations and the other's fortunes. Thankfully, though, Giroud did find time to score his 15th Prem goal and 21st of the season, and he did so in a manner reminiscent of some of our finest moments from the first half of the season.

It started, as so many other chances did, with Özil, who sprinted forward, passed to Ramsey, and faded to the flank. Ramsey danced along before slotting the ball along the edge of the box for—surprise! Still here!—Özil, who flicked a gentle cross in for Giroud to head home. Where? Near-post, of course. With the outcome all but settled, there was still plenty of time to ponder what might have been. How many more such scoring chances might we have seen just like that one? Some will see that as a call to arms, a demand that we sharpen pitchforks; others will see that as a wistful reflection, a moment that we mark with a cluck of the tongue. That's up to you to decide.

For now, it's worth noting that we've taken one more step towards securing Champions League play for a 17th consecutive season, which would match Real Madrid and put us one appearance behind Man U, whose streak should snap this season barring a bizarre series of incidents that includes them winning their three remaining matches, Everton and Tottenham dropping all of theirs, and us getting penalized five points for some reason. Like I said, bizarre.

It's all coming together, albeit a bit later than it did last season, when a demoralizing loss to a rival chasing the same top-four spot we coveted seemed to send us into a downward spiral. As with last season, we've rediscovered or reforged the mettle that makes us, and we're on the verge of again seeing off that rival. We're not quite done there yet, but this latest result marks our fourth consecutive win since that loss. We won't equal the eleven-match unbeaten streak with which we closed the 2012-13 campaign; then again, I'd imagine a seven-match streak will do more than mollify a few malcontents, as such a run would culminate in claiming not just that fourth-place 'trophy' we've come to expect as a minimum but the FA Cup as well. With each passing result, with the return to fitness of each squad-member, it's looking more and more like we'll finish the season as it started, winning matches with style, with elan, with confidence.

I might go so far as to say that our cup overrunneth. Fourth place in the making, the FA Cup beckoning, a 19th-straight St. Totteringham's Day, a potential Golden Glove winner...not bad. Not bad at all.