Ten-men Arsenal were held to a goalless draw today at St. James' Park in a stout defensive performance marred by a skirmish between Joey Barton and Gervinho fifteen minutes from full time. Arsenal looked the more likely to score for the entire match, but a lack of a killer final pass limited the quality of the Gunners' chances.
The first 15 minutes of the match saw possession dominated by Arsenal, Newcastle pressing only in the final third and doing well positionally to cut off cutback passes from the byline and play around the edge of the box. Gervinho and Andrei Arshavin looked dangerous on the wings, but the former in particular struggled a bit with his linkup play, perhaps still building an understanding with Robin van Persie.
Newcastle started to generate some threat 17 minutes in, Wojciech Szczesny saving on a cross towards his near post before coming well out of his area to head away a long ball a minute later. The Toon were exerting a little more pressure now, but Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen, and Wojciech Szczesny were doing exceptionally well keeping the threat at bay, the latter punching away strongly on two occasions.
Alex Song earned his first yellow card of the season 30 minutes in for a professional foul after his positioning let him down trying to contain Jonas Gutierrez on the left. As halftime drew closer, neither team could really create any chances of note, save for a Newcastle free kick that Ryan Taylor drilled right into the Arsenal wall.
Throughout the first half, Vermaelen and Koscielny marshaled the defense really well, the former in particular putting in a number of key tackles. Arsenal also debuted their new zonal marking on set pieces, and looked really good doing so, winning all of their aerial duels. If that keeps up, one problem from last season should see some improvement.
The second half brought one change, Demba Ba coming off for Toon to be replaced by new signing and speedy winger Gabriel Obertan. The first chance of the half fell to van Persie, who curled a free kick onto the roof of the net from the right. Koscielny did excellent work against Shola Ameobi at the other end, recovering and tackling cleanly on the ground before clearing.
The first hint of clouds on the horizon came in the 59th minute, as Alex Song stamped on Barton's leg as the latter lay on the ground. Nobody saw it, but Barton marched straight to the fourth official, berating him. It remains to be seen whether Song will receive any kind of retroactive punishment.
Arsenal brought Theo Walcott on for Andrei Arshavin shortly thereafter, and he almost immediately made and impact, forcing a good low save from Tim Krul. The teams traded half-chances for 15 minutes, Leon Best coming on for Ameobi as Newcastle looked to freshen up their attack.
It wouldn't matter, though, because the rain of blood was about to descend.
Gervinho took a pass on the left, drifted into the box, cut back, and Cheik Tiote tripped him. The referee waved play on, but there was contact; Tiote clearly stepped on Gervinho's left foot as he cut back and felled him. Gervinho lay on the ground as Barton began to scream at him, walked over, and attempted to lift him up off the ground, still screaming. Gervinho took exception, got up, shoved Barton, and both sides converged. Gervinho then slapped Barton in the face; Barton waited two seconds, decided to fall over at that point, and it was chaos. In the aftermath, Gervinho had seen a straight red (there is no explicit rule about "raising hands", but clearly it is the referee's discretion, and Gervinho did react), Barton had received a yellow, and the match resumed.
Despite being down to ten men, Arsenal defended very well, but it was even more difficult to generate an attack. Wenger brought on Djourou in the 93rd minute, and ironically, Arsenal's best chance could have come shortly after as the Swiss did extremely well to win the ball and storm up the pitch with two teammates. His pass out wide was very poor, though, and the attack fizzled out, as did the match.
There are a number of points to take away from the match. The first is, of course, that it is only one match, and it will take more than a scoreless draw away from home marred by the ridiculous Barton to judge where the Gunners are at the moment. However, the match did bear out some of the worry about creativity in the middle, which was indeed lacking today without the presence of Cesc Fabregas. Tomas Rosicky did his best, but Newcastle did well to cut out what incisive passing Arsenal did manage to attempt.
The second point is that Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Sagna all defended extremely well. The only time any of them were beaten was when Obertan outpaced Sagna to a ball in the corner. In addition to the excellent open play defending, (aided by Song's presence, as usual), Arsenal won every ball delivered in a set-piece from Newcastle. If the zonal marking scheme that Arsenal are using, where Song and Ramsey stand at the front of two triangles based on the four defenders massed in front of goal, continues to work this well, a big problem for Arsenal may fade somewhat.
All in all, it ended up being somehow a pretty boring and exciting match at the same time. Arsenal simply must learn not to react to the provocations of Barton, who is an expert at getting under the opposition's skin to the point that they create problems for themselves. Wenger himself noted this in his post-match press conference:
We try to play football and, if you watched today, you will see that. Overall, I feel we have been very harshly punished today. We try to play and sometimes we overreact. We have to take control of that. If we have an area to improve on, then that is it. We will learn from that today.
Hopefully they do; either that, or Arsenal sign Barton and put him in the reserves for all eternity.
Next up: Udinese, the Emirates.