Before Kick-off

The year is 2011, the date is the 5th of February. At St. James’ Park,  Newcastle United face Arsenal F.C. Having fired Chris Hughton in December and then gone on to sell in-form Andy Carroll to Liverpool on deadline day in January the atmosphere on St. James’ Park was nothing short of toxic. Arsenal had been on fine form being second in the league with 50 points but Newcastle in an all too familiar mid-table position at 10th with 31 points.

Before the game Newcastle had Shola Ameobi, Stephen Ireland, Ryan Taylor, Steven Taylor, Dan Gosling, Alan Smith and Hatem Ben Arfa on the injury table so the squad was paper thin. Resulting in a bench filled with youngsters and of course veteran Sol Campbell.

 

Line-ups

Newcastle lined up in a 4-4-1-1 with Nolan in behind Leon Best and Peter Lovenkrands on the right.

Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Robin van Persie up top.

By The Numbers

Newcastle Arsenal
48% Possession 52%
9 Shots on Target 7
10 Shots off Target 3
5 Blocked Shots 3
12 Corners 6
78.8% Pass Success 79.5%
6 Offsides 5
14 Tackles 13
78% Tackle Success 85%
15 Fouls 15
2 Yellow Cards 3
0 Red Cards 1

First half

The game started wonderfully for Arsenal, taking the lead after 45 seconds. Newcastle’s approach of starting aggressively and pressing the opposition blew up into their faces. After slick play from Abou Diaby, the ball eventually landed at Arshavin’s feet, who then one-timed a through pass into Walcott’s path. Theo, who had blown past Iron Mike and Slowoccini, slotted it past Steve Harper in goal. Arsenal added to their lead on the 3rd minute after a free kick from Andrey Arshavin and poor marking by Williamson, which allowed Djourou a free header. Robin van Persie added a 3rd goal to their lead at the 9th minute after a good cross from Theo Walcott. Persie was at it again in the 25th minute mark scoring a header after a good cross from Bacary Sagna.

Newcastle seemed to be totally done for. Tactically, Newcastle’s approach seemed to have done them in – the free-from approach with wingers swapping places with midfielders complicated transitions. This approach left the defence wide open for fast counter-attacking moves with a spry Theo Walcott, who could outrun any member of Newcastle’s back four. Arsenal, stocked with the passing ability of Cesc Fabregas in their armoury and Diaby’s break-up play, was overrunning Newcastle’s midfield.

Although a 4-0 scoreline should suggest total domination from Arsenal in the first half, that is all but true. Newcastle had their chances to cut down the deficit but couldn’t convert anything in the final third of the pitch. With the defensive display shown in the first half, Newcastle was going nowhere: even if they would have managed to get a goal, Arsenal’s attacking force would blow past Newcastle’s slow and confusing defensive transitions.

Second half

Newcastle came out of the dressing room seemingly so that they wouldn’t lose the game by more than 4 goals. The free-form attacking approach had been switched out for a more disciplined approach, which meant that most of the attacking threat came from the left flank: Jonas and Jose Enrique on the left-hand side were producing good spells of play.

The game-changing moment was when Abou Diaby snapped at Joey Barton, for following through with a tough but fair challenge, and was subsequently sent off. Abou Diaby had been playing the role of a midfield destroyer very well. That forced Arsenal into a 4-4-1 shape with Fabregas dropping deeper and partnering with Jack Wilshere in the heart of the pitch. Newcastle took up more aggressive pressing and hunted in packs 10-15 yards past the halfway line

Lightning strikes once

Newcastle were awarded a penalty on the 67th minute after Koscielny clattered Leon Best in the box. Joey Barton slotted the penalty in the lower left side of the goal, 1-4. Shortly after Lovenkrands was subbed off for Nile Ranger, moving Joey Barton to the right flank and Ranger up top with Best and Nolan in behind supporting in the number 10 role. Cheick Tiote had also snapped into gear: while sitting tightly in front of the back four, Tiote was spraying passes around the pitch like a lawn sprinkler. Leon Best cut down Arsenal’s lead further on the 74th minute with a nice finish after a failed attempt at heading the ball. The goal came just after he had scored but deemed wrongfully offside by the assistant referee.

Lightning strikes twice

Having already gotten a penalty in the game, what were the odds of getting another…and what were the odds of a certain Mike Williamson at the far post being seemingly jumped on by Koscielny resulting in a penalty ? Some would at least call it a soft penalty. Joey Barton slots the penalty kick into the middle of goal on the 83rd minute.

Lightning strikes…thrice !!!

Newcastle had all of the control on the pitch after Diaby’s departure, and Arsenal’s substitutions had done seemingly nothing for them. In the 87th minute Newcastle got a free kick on the right wing which culminated in one of the greatest moments in history at St. James’ Park. After Arsenal’s defense had cleared a Joey Barton free-kick into the box, Cheick Tiote hit a fantastic left-footed volley on the rebound. The scoreline is all square, 4-4, and phrases like “Boom, Boom, Cheick, Cheick the room” were born.

To summarise the game, Diaby’s red card and two penalty calls made it so that Newcastle could spur on to have one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Newcastle had a hard time creating good chances from open play and Leon Best’s inability to stay onside is not something to be proud of. Topping it all off with a wondergoal from Cheick Tiote everything seemed to come together in a magical second half on Tyneside. The Magpies could well have put the game to bed also as Kevin Nolan had a good shot just past the post near the end of the game.

But how ?

So what factors were at play for the big comeback ? There are a few. Newcastle’s dressing room was full of experienced players. Most of them had gone down to the Championship with the club and bounced straight back under the guidance of Chris Hughton. They knew not to panic. The talk around the club at the time was that owner Mike Ashley had deemed the dressing room ‘too influential’ with many headstrong leaders like Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Jose Enrique who all were sold after the 2010/11 season.  Newcastle didn’t pop into gear at half time to play a beautiful game of football, rather it was workman-like: thumping tackles, fighting for the second ball and winding up Arsenal’s players.

Even though Newcastle, in the end, only got a draw. This game has to go down as an example of what hard work, belief and maybe a little luck at times can do.