Explaining the inexplicable: What went wrong at Newcastle?
Written by Ben on February 6, 2011 15:10
Less than 24 hours ago, Phil Dowd blew his whistle to end one of the most remarkable football matches ever played, ever. As Alan Pardew said, you would struggle to see this sort of turnaround in a seven-a-side Sunday kick about, let alone in the Premier League.
Liverpool vs. Milan in 2005 comes close, but I’ve never seen a game in which the tide changed so decisively. Having been outplayed for 45 minutes, Liverpool scored three goals in 10 minutes, and then held on for the rest of the game. Arsenal could have had a dozen in the first half, but then Newcastle scored four goals in 25 minutes and could well have had more. It was truly bizarre.
As such, my overwhelming feeling at the end was one of confusion and disbelief. I was also angry and disappointed, but those emotions were largely numbed by the sense of utter incredulity. How on earth did that happen? How did the game turn?
In his post-match interview, an unusually restrained Arsene Wenger highlighted two key moments as turning points: Abou Diaby’s red card in the 50th minute, and Newcastle’s first goal in the 68th. I agree with his assessment, so I will run a little statistical analysis by breaking the game into three parts: before Diaby’s dismissal, between the red card and the first goal, and from Barton’s penalty until the end of the match.
I will list a few key indicators for each team to get an idea of the state of the game during these three periods. I have also gathered a little data on the performance of the “spine” of the team – goalkeeper, central defenders, central midfielders and central striker – to get a better picture of what went on.
After gathering and comparing these statistics, I will be asking two main questions: how both teams’ performance change after the incidents in question, and how this kind of embarrassing capitulation can be avoided. If you are easily bored, I would suggest skipping to the ‘Conclusions’ section of the article.
The first period (minutes 0-50)
I won’t spend much time on the first half – Chris has done a sterling job of that in his post-match comments – except to say that the first half was about as well as Arsenal have played this season. Newcastle were abject, but that should take nothing away from a performance that was full of style, substance and goals. Every Arsenal player did their job efficiently, and looked good doing it.
Szczesny was solid, the back four organised and committed, the midfield sharp, combative and creative. Arshavin laid on two goals, Walcott scored one and created another, and van Persie was imperious as the leader of the attack. The engine was purring!
The statistics for this period of play emphasise how dominant Arsenal were. They attempted 280 passes, completing 226 of those. While the completion rate of 79% is quite low by the Gunners’ standards, this figure includes goal kicks and a lot of low-percentage balls in and around the Newcastle box.
They made 7 interceptions and took 12 shots and attempted 41 tackles (of which 21 were successful). In defence they made 12 clearances (7 successful) and two two blocks, while 8 free kicks were conceded and 12 won.
Newcastle, by way of contrast, had 8 shots – none on target – made 157 of their 211 attempted passes (only three quarters of Arsenal’s possession) and were made nine clearances from crosses, corners and other Arsenal attacks.
The second period (minutes 50-69)
After Diaby was sent off, Newcastle started to get into the game. They pushed Arsenal back, but didn’t really threaten scoring a goal (let alone four), until they were awarded a penalty and Joey Barton slotted past Szczesny. This was a quite period in the match, where it looked as if both teams were content with the status quo – Arsenal to avoid any injuries and Newcastle to avoid a cricket score.
The statistics for the period between the red card and just after the first goal bear this out. Arsenal ceased to be a goal threat, and a single blocked shot from Theo Walcott after a quick break was the sum of their attacking efforts. They completed 58/77 passes (75%), but almost none of these were in and around the Newcastle box. As Newcastle began to press forward, they launched a number of crosses into the Gunners’ box. This led to 11 clearances (5 of them ‘good’) having to be made.
Newcastle had six shots on goal (including the penalty), of which three were on target. They made exactly the same amount of passes as Arsenal (59/77), but their possession was generally higher up the pitch. They also made more tackles (16 attempted, as compared to 9) as they began to show greater urgency in the match.
The third period (minutes 69-90)
St. James’ Park turned into a cauldron after Barton’s spot kick. Suddenly it seemed that Arsenal were holding onto a single-goal lead, rather than being three to the good. Newcastle looked like scoring with every attack and there was a sense of inevitability about the way Arsenal crumbled. They offered absolutely nothing in attack, with the single exception of van Persie’s offside “goal”. It was a dismal performance.
The statistics are painful to witness. In slightly over 20 minutes, just 59 passes were completed out of 85 (a pitiful 69%), meaning that possession was constantly being handed back to Newcastle, inviting pressure. The Magpies laid siege to the Arsenal box, meaning that 14 clearances were required – more than for the first 50 minutes of the game.
Newcastle had 10 shots, of which six were on target. They attempted 123 passes, completing 93 (74% completion); almost one-and-a-half times Arsenal’s possession figures. The fact that their passing had a higher completion rate is amazing when you consider the amount of supposedly 50-50 balls that were being pumped into the Gunners’ box. This demonstrates just how dominant Newcastle were in the air, and in decisive challenges in and around the box.
To get some idea of how the game changed, it is worth collating and comparing the statistics for each player, and for both teams.
This article has had a very selective focus. I have not looked at the contribution of Arshavin, Walcott or Rosicky, three players who – for different reasons – could be said to have influenced the game. I have also not looked at any Newcastle players (especially Barton, Gutierrez and Nolan) in depth. At the same time, I think that it does highlight a few important truths.
Firstly, Diaby’s red card was not what lost Arsenal the game. What it did do, however, was stem the red and white tide that was pounding Newcastle into the sand. The pressure was off them, and they began to come into the game. Possession was evenly shared, with Newcastle posing more of an attacking threat but not really threatening to score. In fact, this period of play is exactly what one would have expected from Arsenal: slow the game down, stop committing as many men forward and try to take the sting out of Newcastle.
After Barton’s penalty, however, all hell broke loose. The metaphor I will use is of a gust of wind: it had been behind Arsenal, then it died down, and finally it roared back behind the Magpies. The goal gave the players and crowd belief and, helped along by a dodgy call for the second penalty, they swarmed all over the Gunners. Newcastle dominated possession, they won everything in the air and it often seemed like Szczesny was fighting a one-man battle to protect the Arsenal goal. The Arsenal players committed stupid fouls, whined and moaned over every refereeing decision, lost every challenge, misplaced passes and were pushed further and further back. It was straight from “How Not to Play Football 101”.
One final question remains: how do we avoid a similar capitulation happening again? Keeping your players on the pitch is a start, and I expect Diaby will be feeling partly culpable for two points dropped. More important, however, is what Arsene Wenger calls “mental strength”. I’m not sure how you measure mental strength, but I would say that being down to ten men and facing 60,000 Geordies willing you to fail is a pretty good test. Unfortunately, it is one that this young Arsenal team failed spectacularly. It was particularly disappointing to see senior players drifting out of the game and looking shell-shocked.
It’s up to the manager, the captain and every other player to be strong enough to strip away the atmosphere and recognise that this is still isn’t war. It’s just a game of football, one in which you are three goals up and facing a distinctly average opponent. You stay calm, you do the basics, and you refuse to fail.