Follow the Ball – Game 1: Arsenal vs Newcastle United

My plan for 2016 is to watch more football. I’m not that concerned about who is actually playing in the match, truth be told, but I just want to immerse myself in other games. As such I am going to watch a single game each week following the winner into their next match; and so on. In theory I could end up watching any league on the planet if “my team” loses the right (or wrong) European fixture – or by the end of the year I might simply end up watching 40-odd games featuring teams from the Premier League.

To kick things off, I needed to decide on a Team Zero to kick off my planned year of joy.

Of course social media and the power of Twitter provided the answer. I asked my followers (and anyone else that stumbled on the tweet) to name the best player so far in the Barclays Premier League this season. I only have myself to blame for including an Arsenal player in the vote and it was ultimately Mexut Ozil that finished first, ahead of Jamie Vardy, Romelu Lukaku and Riyad Mahrez.

As such…

Follow the Ball – Team Zero: Arsenal

Game 1: Arsenal vs Newcastle United
Barclays Premier League, Saturday 2nd January 2016, Emirates Stadium

The Skinny: Arsenal are title contenders; almost by accident. Manchester City have struggled to keep their attacking rhythm, Chelsea have been a disaster, Manchester United are boring everyone to tears, Liverpool are coming to terms with Jurgen Klopp and Tottenham Hotspur have only got one striker so something will inevitably go wrong. As it stands, Arsenal appear to be the most likely winners of the Barclays Premier League title this season.

They finished 2015 with the best record through the 12 months and sitting atop of the league table. They just don’t appear to have done anything drastically different from previous years – and therein lies the problem. They just feel like every other Arsenal that has come along in the last 10 years and a huge stumble feels like it is just around the corner (usually heralded by four or five injuries within seven days). If they can avoid those troubles, this may finally be the year for Wenger to break his wait for a fourth league title with the Gunners.

As for Newcastle – they remain the shambles they have been for the last few years. Football is now a business; we’ve all had to make our peace with that but the Magpies hierarchy have taken matters in totally the wrong direction. Where there is a happy medium to be struck between competition and money, Mike Ashley’s focus feels like it is on the wrong end of the spectrum. The players, in theory, are capable of performing to a higher level than they manage but you do get the impression they are at a club that values the potential profit to be made on each signing more than actually putting together a cohesive playing structure.

Steve McClaren doesn’t seem like the guy to bring consistency to Newcastle United.

The Match: It was ultimately decided by a soft goal. The sort of goal that leaves a team in the relegation zone cursing their luck after pushing the league leaders pretty close.

The Magpies produced more than enough chances to start the year with a good result. Some of the credit should go to Petr Cech for a fine goalkeeping performance, although I can’t help wondering that with slightly calmer heads or a little bit of luck (when the ball bounced off Mitrovic’s thigh and over the bar for example) Newcastle could have scored one or two goals before Arsenal were able to grab what was the winner.

The North London club just about edged the match. They get to march on having claimed all three and continue to appear like they might just be title contenders once again. Worryingly though, the chances they created weren’t much better than anything Newcastle conjured up – except perhaps for the sitter that was gifted to Laurent Koscielny to win the match. Against a better or more confident team, they won’t be able to keep a clean sheet in a game like this. I am now concious that I am wandering into “mark of champions” cliché territory with every passing word; so I’ll just stop with this line of thought.

Aleksandar Mitrović is a striker that I like an awful lot when he is on the pitch; although it is incredibly hard to ignore the baggage comes with him. His movement around the box is everything needed from a centre forward and the way he was able to keep both Arsenal defenders busy during the game was especially pleasing. His overhead kick was a little too extravagant given the match situation and the chance that bounced off his thigh was an unfortunate height; but there was plenty to please the fans. If the ball is put into the penalty box regularly enough, he is capable of scoring the goals that will guide Steve McClaren and his squad clear of the bottom three.

Mesut Özil didn’t score or assist a goal, which is unlike him (he had scored three and assisted six in his previous nine for Arsenal) but he was still one of the better Arsenal players on the park.

The Result: Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle United

As expected; in that Arsenal won. That said Newcastle did give a solid account of themselves. Sadly there weren’t as many goals as I hoped or assumed there would be.

What’s next? Arsenal vs Sunderland in the FA Cup Third Round