Arsenal became the first side to throw away a four-goal lead in the history of the Premier League as Newcastle fought back to draw 4-4 at St. James’s Park.
A delayed journey back from the Olympiastadion for Berlin Derby Day meant I missed the opening half-hour of this game, but upon arriving at the Oscar I poured myself a drink and enjoyed the atmosphere amongst the Arsenal supporters.
4-0 up after half an hour? A helluva performance, for sure. Johan Djourou scoring his first goal for the club? Wowzers. It felt like I’d missed my son’s first birthday.
With such a strong lead one of the older, more knowledgeable and level-headed supporters in the pub remarked to me late the first half that we just needed to “see the game out and avoid doing something stupid”. I couldn’t agree more, but in the back of my head I wanted more goals. I wanted our boys to close the goal difference gap on Manchester United and make a real statement here.
As I sipped on my half-time beer, I never imagined how foolish those arrogant thoughts would prove to be.
Goonerholic summed it up perfectly when he said “It takes a combination of things for anybody to surrender a four goal advantage at any level.” And so it was here, as a series of unfortunate events conspired to trigger a monumental second-half collapse by a group of players that I had heaped praise on just a few days ago.
Most people will believe that our collapse came with Abou Diaby’s sending off. It didn’t.
It started with a dreadful tackle by Joey Barton on Andrey Arshavin at the end of the first half. The little Russian navigated cleverly to shift his body position and Barton came blustering through, taking man then ball in reckless fashion. The decision from referee Phil Dowd? Play on.
When a team is 4-0 down at half-time the common statement to make regarding their second-half attitude is that they should give it a go because they have nothing to lose. At the end of the day what is the difference between 7-0 and 4-0? You may as well give everything because it’s not going to get any worse, right?
But by giving it their all there was something that Newcastle potentially did have to lose. One of their players. By giving it their all — ie. pressuring the Arsenal players and throwing themselves into tackles — there was always a risk that one of those players might get sent off.
The thing is, though, that Dowd’s cowardly, incorrect decision to allow Barton’s tackle on Arshavin to go unpunished set the limits for the second half. It meant that Newcastle, quite literally, had nothing to lose.
Shortly after Djourou was forced off came the next important moment in Newcastle’s resurgence. Sebastien Squillaci sold Diaby a little short on his pass and Barton took the opportunity gifted to him by the referee in the first half to take ball and man once again.
He may have played the ball with one foot but the replays showed that Barton leaped into the tackle with both feet off the ground and therefore should have been sent off. It was the very definition of a “reckless” tackle, once you leave the ground with both feet you are no longer in control of what you are doing and cannot cushion the impact.
Barton is a smart footballer, a man with an exceptional footballing brain to go with his nasty streak, and he knew exactly what he was doing here. He knew exactly what boundaries the referee had given him to move in and he knew that he would get away with it.
Diaby reacted foolishly, no question, but given the tackles he has been on the end of I won’t hold it against him. As supporters we see these tackles happen on Diaby every once in a while, because he is out with injury so often, but for the man on the receiving end they are happening almost every game he actually plays. There were signs of his frustration when Bolton’s Paul Robinson took him out earlier in the season and he finally snapped today.
Diaby’s sending off in itself shouldn’t have been the end of us — we still had a four-goal lead after all! — but the incident surrounding the red card made it very difficult. It was a second green light to Newcastle, a much brighter green light that they could throw their bodies around all they wanted and they would not be punished. Once again they were reminded that they had absolutely nothing to lose.
The next incident that followed in our collapse Newcastle’s first goal and once against the referee had a part to play. Laurent Koscielny was foolish to try and win the ball between the legs of the attacker but I can understand where Dowd was coming from to award this. His human instincts probably mumbled “I think it’s a penalty. What’s the score again? 4-0. Yeah, I’ll give a penalty. Surely it won’t matter at the end of the game and the fans won’t feel so bad.”
What happened next boggled the mind. Barton scored, Wojciech Szczesny picked up the ball and Kevin Nolan, in a bid to get the ball up, grabbed our goalkeeper in a headlock and threw him to the ground. The decision? Yellow card to Szczesny. Another green light from Dowd to the Newcastle players: “Do whatever you want lads, you’re going to get away with it.”
People will criticise our team for losing control of this game and in many regards they did. But the later stages of the Everton game gave a good indication that this group knows how to see out a lead. How to take their time on injuries, slow the pace of the game down and frustrate the opponents. But once Szczesny was punished for the heinous crime of not giving the ball back and attempting to slow the game down a fraction, the option to play the game at our pace disappeared.
Leon Best was unlucky to have a perfectly good goal ruled offside, but made amends for that moments later by finding the net again. We were struggling to cope with a man less and Newcastle’s momentum was building with every moment. Newcastle players continued to play aggressively, throwing themselves into challenges and we rarely got the ball into our own half. We were well and truly up against it.
Then came another horrendous decision. Dowd gave another penalty for Newcastle, apparently for a push by Tomas Rosicky. But where was it? Where was the push? Even the crowd didn’t really appeal for it. Even Mark Lawrenson on MOTD thought it was a ridiculously bad call.
Szczesny almost saved Barton’s poky penalty before comically hurling the ball towards the centre circle — he’s certainly got some character, this boy — and the score was 4-3. With around 10 minutes still remaining you could just feel what was around the corner.
That Newcastle equalised with such an amazing strike was just incredibly frustrating. That it came from a free-kick that Barton milked from Rosicky was typical of the refereeing performance. Cesc Fabregas was labeled as “clever” by Roberto Martinez for his part in Gary Caldwell’s sending off a few weeks ago, but this was far more “clever” than that. It was a dive.
The football gods had their final laugh when Robin van Persie found the net late on only to be denied by the offside flag. A correct decision, admittedly, but exasperating all the same as the whistle blew on an unbelievable game of football.
Additional talking points
Two points dropped or one gained?
The most bizarre thing about yesterday is that despite throwing a 4-0 lead away Manchester United’s amazing loss to Wolves means we are one point closer to the top of the table than we were at the start of the day. I love winning football games, obviously, and at 4-0 up we really should have one this one, but if you had offered me the opportunity to close the gap on United by one point I would have taken it.
The Invincibles’ record will stand
Not only did United’s loss see us creep a point closer but it also means they will not match the record of The Invicibles. It’s a huge relief for me, personally.
Djourou’s injury a huge worry
The extent of Djourou’s knee injury could be a huge factor in our chances of winning the league and indeed, beating Barcelona in the Champions League. While I don’t believe Squillaci is as bad as he his made out to be, Djourou and Koscielny are a great combination and none of the four goals yesterday came when the Swiss defender was on the pitch. That means in the past five-and-a-half league games he has scored as many goals as he has conceded, with Everton’s offside goal the only blot on his defensive copybook. The sooner he returns the better.
Szczesny is a man of immense character
With madness going on around him Szczesny showed again that he has character beyond his years. By his high standards he will be disappointed not to have kept out Barton’s second penalty but the fact that he has got a glove or foot on two of the last four penalties he has faced means his decision-making has been good. Meanwhile his throw of the ball as Newcastle players came to retrieve Barton’s second penalty was hilarious, as was his post-game response to the officiating on Twitter: “It is hard to make any comments on today’s game without using the magic word “referee”… Thought he was brilliant today…”
What would a fixed game look like?
How would you fix a game without it looking blatantly obvious? If we watched a game of football without knowing it was fixed, then informed that it was following the game, would we notice? How would this one or the Everton one rate in comparison to a fixed game? An interesting thought to ponder, I think.
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