03 January 2016

These are the results that champions deliver. Period.

For long stretches, it looked as if Arsenal would stumble. At home against an embattled and overmatched squad, our Gunners should have cakewalked their way to an easy victory. Instead, we witnessed a gritty, grubby performance as Newcastle hunkered down in a stubborn 4-5-1 and dared us to unlock them. Their occasional counters proved to be more dangerous than most of what we could muster, and the excellence of Petr Čech should surely earn him a MotM award. However, for as much as we might have craved a swash-buckling display, it's closer to the truth to expect days like these, when a desperate opponent reminds us that anything can happen. To have found a positive result on this day proves more than any lopsided result that we're serious about winning the Prem.

Ask yourself—but don't answer—how many times we've slipped up in just this kind of match: heavily favoured, chance to go clear atop the table...some of us might have to take off a shoe or two to tally correctly. How many times have we outplayed our opponent only to come away empty-handed through some fluke or miscue, ruing how beautifully we'd played along the way? There would be none of that today, as for the second straight week, a centre-back netted the game-winner. Last week, it was Gabriel opening his account against Bournemouth; this week, it would be Koscielny. His goal might not have been as dramatic as his previous winner against Newcastle—the one that secured our fourth-place finish in 2013—but it might prove to be even more vital in the long run. There's something to be said for the resilience and grit it takes to win these kinds of matches, and it's that kind of resilience and grit we've lacked all too often in recent seasons.

We do owe Southampton and Newcastle a debt, however, and it's one that we should pay before the bill comes due. For the second time in three matches, Mesut Özil has been tenaciously man-marked. Two weeks ago, it was Jordy Clasie who hounded and harassed Özil, and we had no answers. No one could step into the void as Özil struggled against the physicality and incessant fouling (uncalled, I might add) that Clasie and others dished out. This week, it was Cheick Tioté's turn to badger Özil, doing just enough to disrupt the German's élan that he struggled to create the chances we've come to depend on. Few others stepped up to fill the void, and it's therefore little surprise that our best chance came from a scramble in front of Newcastle's goal that Koscielny finally finished. The amount of effort and work more than made up for whatever the goal lacked in style or craft. However, we do have to figure out how to handle this man-marking strategy, as other managers are sure to have noticed how much it slows down our attack. This was, after all, the first Prem match in which we scored without Özil being involved. That's not a typo. In every other Prem match in which we've scored, Özil has had either a goal or an assist.

Speaking of scoring and assisting, neither Ox nor Walcott did either. Both were woeful, and while that might be expected from the 22-year old Ox, we've come to expect—or at least pay for—more from Walcott. Ox's development does seem to have stalled, but it doesn't seem like we can afford to loan him out in January, not with the injury-crisis we're still crawling out from. However, something has to change in how he's handled or in how he approaches his role. He's bereft of confidence and faces the cold, hard catch-22 of needing time on the pitch to work through this and struggling to endure the mistakes he can't seem to avoid making. He's young. There's still time for him to grow.

With Walcott, though, the problem runs deeper. He's a decade into his time at Arsenal, and he's now the highest or second-highest paid player (level with or just behind Özil, depending on the source). However, he just isn't producing. Aside from that three-match "explosion" during which he got two goals and three assists in three matches, he's not done a whole lot. I'd said he's peaked, but even that might be generous. Soon to turn 27, one has to wonder whether his best days are already behind him and whether Arsenal should try to sell him this summer. Players rarely get faster as they age, and Walcott's best (only?) asset is his speed.

Setting aside the struggles of individual players, though, set your sights on the bigger picture: we won despite playing far from our best, with several key players struggling for various reasons. Aside from Čech, no one played all that well. To conjure a win out of thin air, then, is the kind of magic championships are made of. Of course, Man City went one better, falling behind 1-0 at Vicarage Road before roaring back to life to win 1-2. With Leicester dropping points for the third consecutive match, we might just have on our hands a two-team race. The only team that can stop Arsenal is Arsenal...and we showed today that we're better than we've been in a while.