Match Preview: Newcastle United FC vs. Arsenal FC

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 05: Cheik Tiote of Newcastle celebrates scoring the fourth and equalising goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park on February 5 2011 in Newcastle upon Tyne England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Newcastle opens their 2011-12 season on Saturday by hosting Arsenal at St James' Park.  The beginning of meaningful football will provide welcome relief for both teams, as they have each endured tumultuous offseasons.  The last time these two teams met, Newcastle famously rallied from an 0-4 deficit to force a 4-4 draw.  Follow the jump for this week's match preview.

Newcastle United FC vs. Arsenal FC

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Season Preview

Positional Previews: Goalkeeper | Defenders | Midfielders | Forwards

Match Preview | Keep Your Enemies Closer | 5 Questions

SBN Arsenal Blog: The Short Fuse

Significant Offseason Stories:

Mehdi Abeid ArrivesShane Ferguson Signs New Deal | Yohan Cabaye Arrives

Kevin Nolan DepartsDemba Ba Arrives | Sylvain Marveaux Arrives

Fabricio Coloccini Named Captain | Hatem Ben Arfa Injured | Joey Barton Told to Leave

Wayne Routledge DepartsGabriel Obertan Arrives | Jose Enrique Departs

The Opponent

Arsenal are a Top 4 side and will continue to be, despite a ton of offseason angst.  Despite the impending departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (probably), the Gunners can and will field a formidable Starting XI.  Robin Van Persie is somehow underrated as a striker, and Arsene Wenger has found him a very strong partner in Gervinho.  The striking corps is bolstered by a dominant midfield.  The defense is the weak point, but it is certainly not as awful as the media narrative would have you believe.  Did you know that Arsenal conceded the least shots (332; second-place Chelsea was at 388) and least shots on goal (186, or a miniscule 4.89 per game) in the Prem last season?  Of course, these numbers are buoyed by Arsenal's patient, possessive style.  In other words, they maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.  This team is a lot closer to the squad that scored 4 goals in the first 28 minutes last February than the one that conceded 4 in the second half that day.

Developments

How do you summarize a summer's worth of drama in one paragraph?  Newcastle has let go of some of their most valuable assets and brought in some unproven talent with a lot of potential.  Likewise, Arsenal will be announcing the departure of Cesc Fabregas after this match (though he's unavailable for it) and Samir Nasri has one foot out the door as well.  However, their replacement (Gervinho) is more renowned and it should be noted that the Gunners have a lot more room for error.  Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby will be unavailable for Arsenal, while Hatem Ben Arfa will sit this one out for Newcastle.

Interesting Storyline

All eyes will be on Alan Pardew as he turns in his lineup card.  He played his cards very close to the chest during the preseason (often out of necessity), so there's a lot of mystery involved.  Will he stick with the 4-4-2 formation of last year, or will he immediately try to make his mark on the team tactically?  Who will play left back? (Please, not Jonas Gutierrez.) Does Peter Lovenkrands possess incriminating photos of Pardew?

Expectations

The betting lines have Newcastle win at slightly more than 3 to 1, a draw at slightly less, and a loss at even odds.  I'd agree with that assessment, though if I had to play one of those odds I'd go for a draw.  Like last season, the Magpies open the season with a lot of questions and will be immediately tested by a Big 4 club.  I wouldn't be surprised at a similar result to that contest (a 3-0 loss), though I don't think it's too much to expect some competitiveness.  A draw or win would have to be considered a huge success.  The silver lining to all of this is that supporters won't likely feel too much disappointment if things turn out like they should, save for a particularly one-sided score of course.

Keys to Victory

  1. If I were in Arsene Wenger's shoes (and there are a million reasons I'm not), I would immediately and relentlessly test whomever Alan Pardew inserts at left back (Ryan Taylor? Dan Gosling? Jonas Gutierrez?).  In order to have a chance, the left back must be resolute and break the Gunners' will in playing a right handed game.  Momentum can often shift in a game if a team cannot break their opponents' weakness.
  2. The team must be patient.  Teams often play into the Gunners' hands by aggressively pursuing the ball.  Newcastle (especially the midfielders) must have the mental toughness not to get frustrated by a lack of possession. 
  3. Demba Ba must be awesome.  This isn't so much a tactical suggestion as wishful thinking.  If Ba has a great game, confidence in the attack will follow. 

Fearless Predictions

  • Pardew will use a formation other than the 4-4-2.  If Newcastle loses, he will be crucified in the media for making too many changes.  If they win or draw, he will be praised for his innovations.
  • Gervinho will score Arsenal's lone goal in the last 15 minutes.
  • Leon Best will be Newcastle's most effective striker.
  • NUFC 0, AFC 1

Newcastle United FC

Last Year: 12th place, 46 points, 11-13-14

Out: Hatem Ben Arfa (ankle)

Questionable: Joey Barton (Twitter), Shane Ferguson (ankle), Danny Guthrie (ankle)

Projected XI: [Assuming a 4-4-2 until further notice] Harper/Krul (really, who knows?) | Simpson, STaylor, Coloccini (C), RTaylor | Marveaux, Tiote, Cabaye, Jonas | Shola, Ba

Projected Subs: Harper/Krul, Williamson, Obertan, Gosling, Barton, Vuckic, Best

Arsenal FC

Last Year: 4th place, 68 points, 19-11-8

Out: Jack Wilshere (ankle), Abou Diaby (ankle), Cesc Fabregas (Barca announcement not official yet), Samir Nasri ("illness")

Questionable: Robin van Persie (knee), Kieran Gibbs (thigh)

Projected XI: Szczesny | Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Gibbs | Ramsey, Song | Rosicky | Walcott, Van Persie (C), Gervinho

Projected Subs: Almunia, Vela, Koscielny, Arshavin, Gibbs, Squillaci, Oxlade-Chamberlain

Match Official: Peter Walton

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