Alex Keble previews the big clash that could decide Arsenal's important clash against Newcastle...
Oozing with self-belief after their magnificent defeat of Chelsea, Newcastle will be confident of similar success against a defensively vulnerable Arsenal. And they have every right to feel optimistic.
All 3 of Stoke's goals last weekend came from crosses, exacerbating an already-abysmal Arsenal record: 11 of the goals scored against them this season have come from crossing situations, a hefty 61% of their total. A significant proportion of these occur due to Arsenal's possessional dominance (59%, a league best) and a high defensive line, leaving them vulnerable to breakaways that catch their full-backs too high upfield.
The Stoke defeat was the perfect example of Arsenal's Achilles' heel. Note how high up the pitch Kieran Gibbs plays; caught out of position, he was at fault for Bojan's second goal.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, this perfectly complements Alan Pardew's playing style. Newcastle have scored 7 goals from crosses this season (41% of their total), and regularly launch counter-attacks. What's more, 76% of Newcastle's attacks come down the flanks, more than any other Premier League club.
Newcastle move the ball to wide positions as quickly as possible, before crossing the ball into the box where their forwards await. But these statistics will only become relevant if Newcastle are able to nullify Arsenal's natural flair and creativity; Alexis Sanchez (2.7 key passes per game) and Santi Cazorla (2.1) initiate the vast majority of the Gunners' attacks from central areas, drifting into space in front of the opposition back four. 32% of Arsenal's attacks come down the middle, the highest proportion in the league.
Arsenal's victory at The Hawthorns provides a typical example of their propensity to create chances through the middle, with their inverted wingers constantly drifting infield.
Once again, Newcastle's tactical strategy already counteracts this playing style. Against Chelsea, Newcastle successfully stifled Eden Hazard and Oscar by employing James Colback in an anchor role, closing out the spaces that playmakers like Sanchez prefer to operate in. If he can hold this area (with the help of Cheick Tiote) as well as he did against Chelsea, Arsenal may find themselves increasingly frustrated.
If these two sit deep and defend doggedly, Arsenal will struggle to break through the Newcastle defence.
If this happens Arsenal will, as usual, overcommit to attack and ignore their defensive responsibilities. With counter-attack goals a major threat, the battle between Arsenal's playmakers and Jack Colback could ultimately decide which way this match swings.