Arsenal: Intelligence over style

Arsenal’s win over Newcastle this afternoon wasn’t particularly memorable and had it not been for the home team’s poor discipline and Aleksandar Mitrovic’s reckless stamp the game probably wouldn’t be worth dwelling on.

It was ugly.  There was very little fluency or pace and, although they did have plenty of shots and did create enough chances to have won by a wider margin, Arsenal looked fairly blunt.

But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.

In the past, Wenger’s side have run up big scores against inferior opposition and have taken full-advantage of numerical superiority.  So their ability to be a flat-track bully really isn’t in question.

Today was a difficult watch and some fans will go home dissatisfied by what they’ve seen, but it’s worth dwelling on just how smart Arsenal were at St James’ Park.  No, they weren’t at their best and almost all of their attacking players performed within themselves, but they succeeded collectively in strangling the life out of Newcastle and, regardless of whether that’s at odds with the club’s usual associations, it’s extremely important that a title-challenger can play that way.

If such a thing can be imagined, this was how Arsenal would have reacted to their circumstances today had they been managed by Jose Mourinho.  They were very street-wise and very points-focused.  Their opponents may have been down to ten-men for over seventy minutes, but that red card didn’t end the game and it was ultimately a stale, lifeless contest because of how Arsenal performed.

A team of that calibre obviously becomes an overwhelming favourite in that scenario, but - as has been shown time and again - there is definitely an art to capitalising on it.  The retention of possession, the drawing of cheap fouls and a slow temperament: Arsenal played the game in a way that suited them.

They didn’t invite any pressure on themselves, they didn’t give away any needless free-kicks in their own half and at no point did Newcastle ever build any momentum against them, let alone look likely to score.

They had 74% of the possession, completed 708 passes to their opponent’s 202, and gave up just a single shot on their goal.  It was a near-perfect example of how to play against a team with ten-men: it was like watching a boxer with a points advantage dance around the ring.

No, nobody is going to rush out to buy the DVD, but today’s game was representative of exactly the sort of calm control that this club has paid for not establishing in the past.

Winning with flair is great, but it’s not nearly as important as simply winning.

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