Gunners capitulation at St James' Park an enormous psychological blow
With 26 minutes gone at St James' Park on Saturday, Arsenal were 4-0 up and set to go two points behind leaders Manchester United - everything seemed too good to be true for Arsene Wenger’s men.
Unfortunately for the North London side, it was. When the final whistle blew the Gunners’ boss had witnessed his side concede four goals in 19 minutes, in the most alarming second half collapse in Premier League history.
Arsenal came flying out the blocks, with Theo Walcott and Johan Djourou putting them two goals to the good with barely 180 seconds on the clock.
The free-flowing football that Arsenal are so famous for was simply too much for the shell-shocked Magpies, and before home fans could digest Arsenal’s blistering start they were four down.
Newcastle’s defending was nothing short of abysmal, and after Robin van Persie stroked the ball past the helpless Steve Harper, the Dutchman was once again left unmarked in the box, nodding home a Bacary Sagna cross to seemingly seal the game for Wenger’s men.
Incredibly, Newcastle fans headed for the exits, whilst Arsenal fans cheered every pass from their heroes, as Fabregas, Wilshere & Co treated the game as a training exercise, cruising into half-time with a four-goal cushion.
Not even the most optimistic of Geordies would have dreamt that their side could mount a comeback, but when Joey Barton clattered into Abou Diaby, the Frenchman handed the home side an unlikely lifeline.
Diaby, who had been unhappy with Barton for an earlier tackle on Andrey Arshavin, completely lost his head with Newcastle’s No.7, grabbing him by the neck and throwing him to the floor, giving Phil Dowd no choice but to send the player off. Arsenal never recovered.
The red card reinvigorated Newcastle, along with the suddenly optimistic home fans, who roared their black and white boys back into life.
Laurent Koscielny felled Leon Best in the penalty area and Barton stepped up to stroke home what proved to be the start of an unbelievable comeback.
Best then had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside, before getting the goal he deserved, the former Coventry man reacting first to a loose ball in the area and slotting past Wojciech Szczesny.
Fifteen minutes were remaining and Arsenal’s management knew they were in trouble, Wenger’s assistant Pat Rice marching down the technical area screaming instructions at his players. They feared the worst, and it was heading straight towards them.
Frequently criticised for their vulnerability in the air, the Arsenal back four simply couldn’t handle the aerial bombardment given to them by Alan Pardew’s side.
Newcastle’s game plan was simple, get the ball out wide and into the box, and their persistence was rewarded when Dowd pointed to the spot for the second time, this time for an apparent push by Tomas Rosicky on Mike Williamson. Barton stepped up and made it 4-3 with seven minutes to go. Surely not?
|COUNTDOWN TO COLLAPSE
50 mins - Abou Diaby is sent off for throwing Joey Barton to the ground
68 mins - Barton converts a penalty after Laurent Koscielny brings down Leon Best. 4-1.
73 mins - Leon Best reacts quickest to a loose ball to bring the score to 4-2
83 mins - Barton converts another penalty when Arsenal are penalised for fouling Mike Williamson at a set-piece. 4-3.
87 mins - Cheik Tiote smashes a left-footed volley back past Wojciech Szczesny. 4-4.
Will Arsenal ever learn?
Arsenal will look at crucial decisions such as Barton’s ferocious tackle on Diaby that went unpunished, and the generous penalty decisions that gifted Newcastle a route back into the game.
You could sympathise with Arsene Wenger and his players, however Arsenal fans are no strangers to witnessing their side fail to cope with aerial onslaughts, and have been waiting for Arsenal to reinforce their team with players to handle games such as this. No-nonsense assets that can cope with aerial duels that the Gunners can expect on their travels (they haven’t even visited the Britannia yet this season...)
They dropped points at Wigan when they failed to deal with a routine corner, and lost to Newcastle at home after allowing Andy Carroll to rise unchallenged in their penalty box. The winning goal for Tottenham at the Emirates came from a set-piece on a day when Arsenal raced into a first-half lead then somehow lost all belief in the second period. Sound familiar?
When teams prepare for a game against Arsenal, they identify Arsenal’s weakness, and that is without a doubt their lack of height and leadership in defence.
Brede Hangeland and Gary Cahill are just two of the players who have been mentioned to come into Arsenal’s back four, both bullish defenders who relish the fight that takes place between a centre-forward and a centre-back on a matchday.
Arsene Wenger though seems reluctant to spend the big money needed to bring a big name Premier League centre-back to the club, opting instead to spend a combined £14 million on Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny last summer - and absolutely nothing in January.
On the latest evidence, Koscielny and Squillaci aren’t up for that challenge. Johan Djourou has impressed of late but after he limped off with an injury and when Diaby was sent off, Arsenal were crying out for someone to take hold of the team and calm them down. Unfortunately for them, no one was up for the challenge.
The Arsenal of old would have looked back to their defence and seen an abundance of leaders, the stand-out being Tony Adams. A natural born leader whose qualities filtered through to the rest of his players, a calming influence that was badly needed in yesterday’s capitulation.
Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2004 had Sol Campbell, Manchester United have Nemanja Vidic, Chelsea have John Terry, the list goes on.
All Championship winning sides need a dominant centre-half, and Arsenal currently don’t have one.
Arsenal fans will point to Thomas Vermaelen, who has been out of action since August with an Achilles problem, but with his return to fitness constantly being put back, it's not out of the question that Arsenal’s defensive frailties will continue until the end of the season.
Wenger admitted afterwards that his side had suffered "psychological damage" in the defeat, that only time would tell just how much that will affect his troops between now and the end of the season.
They will continue to play with style at the Emirates, cruising past teams that allow them to play their beautiful football that makes them one of the best sides in Europe.
But Arsenal now know that no lead is safe, the lessons from the Tottenham defeat earlier in the season not heeded.
Without a leader at the back, and without the players that can cope with the physical demands of tough away fixtures in the Premier League, a fourth Premier League title is likely to be beyond Wenger - and even he knows it.