The Gunners kicked off their season with a 1-0 victory at Newcastle on Sunday. It was an underwhelming performance but an important result for their hopes of a Top 4 finish in the Premier League. Last season, the Gunners only won 7 of their 19 away games while Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham managed to win at least 11 games on the road. That poor away record explains why Arsenal missed out on a Champions League spot. Arsenal finished 3rd in the home table but only 8th in the away table.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
A football season is a marathon, not a sprint. Emery was therefore cautious in his team selection. There was no new signing in the starting lineup. Luiz, Pepe, Ceballos and Martinelli were on the bench while Tierney was on the disabled list because of a groin injury. Pepe, Ceballos and Martinelli had never played in England before, so it was a wise move to help them get familiar with the intensity and physicality of the Premier League by giving them some playing time in the second half. Luiz could have made a start, but his relative lack of understanding with his new team was a too big risk.
Lacazette and Torreira were also on the bench for different reasons. Lacazette had just recovered from an ankle injury whereas Torreira lacked match fitness after competing in the Copa America with the Uruguay team in June.
Meanwhile, Emery was forced to leave Ozil and Kolasinac out of the squad because of security concerns. Ozil and Kolasinac were the victims of a carjacking attempt a couple of weeks ago. According to British newspapers, it wasn’t a one-off as London gangs are still targeting the two players. All these constraints led Emery to inject more youth than usual in his starting lineup. Willock started in the hole behind Aubameyang while Nelson took over the spot on the left wing.
Aubameyang’s moment of magic
The Gunners struggled to break down the Newcastle defense. In an austere 3-5-2 formation, the Magpies used a high block to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back. When the Gunners reached the halfway line, Newcastle switched to a low block, basically parking the bus. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of relatively sterile possession with just 2 shots on target to 2 for the hosts.
To play out from the back, you need players with great technique and mobility and a sound reading of the game. In the heart of the defense, Sokratis and Chambers simply don’t have the ball-playing abilities of a Laporte, Alderweireld or Van Dijk. In midfield, Xhaka and Guendouzi don’t have the passing and dribbling skills of a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla, who could help create space by setting a high tempo. The few times the Gunners reached the final third, they were let down by a lack of creativity.
The winning goal came from a mistake by the Magpies in the 58th minute. Maitland-Niles intercepted Dummett’s pass for Willems and charged down the right flank before finding an unmarked Aubameyang with a cross. The Gabon striker controlled the ball and chipped Dubravka with a cool finish.
Aubameyang didn’t get much service but his pace and finishing put Newcastle defenders on their toes. He wasted a counterattacking opportunity in the 15th with a heavy touch. Then he tested Dubravka with a powerful angled strike in the 31st. The Magpies saw his burst of speed in the 52nd when Aubameyang made a run in behind to collect a through ball from Xhaka. However, Dummett reacted quickly enough to block Aubameyang’s shot for a corner.
Showing faith in Nelson
Offensive support was an issue last season because Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi lacked consistency. Emery is relying on Nelson, Ceballos and Pepe this season to provide more ammunition to Aubameyang and Lacazette. In his return from a loan spell at Hoffenheim, Nelson showed some decent work-rate with 6 defensive actions (1 block, 5 recoveries) in 70 minutes, but lacked a bit of audacity in the final third. His best moment was a dribbling run in the 34th.
I believe the staff made the right choice by cashing in on Iwobi to let Nelson grow. The English teenager has better dribbling and finishing skills. On Sunday, Nelson had 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles out of 4, according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy of 86.4% was also better than Mhkitaryan’s 73.3%. With more time and confidence, Nelson will find a way to have a greater impact in the final third.
Mkhitaryan showed his creativity with a ball over the top for Aubameyang in the 31st. Those two players know each other well since they’ve played together at Borussia Dortmund between 2013 and 2016. However, a lot of fans were frustrated with Mkhitaryan’s inconsistency. Mkhitaryan wasted Arsenal’s first scoring chance in the 23rd by firing over the bar from 15 yards. He then led a counterattack with an impressive dribbling run in the 50th only to miss his final ball for Nelson. I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mkhitaryan’s crossfield pass for Monreal that sailed straight into touch in the 63rd.
Untidy in possession
In midfield, Willock was given a rare start mostly because of Ceballos’ lack of match fitness and Ozil’s off-the-pitch issues. At times, Willock struggled with his positional play, not knowing when to drop off and when to play higher up the pitch. It’s not as easy as it seems. Think of Ramsey helping the defenders build play from the back and then making a late run in the box to shoot. It takes years of practice to read the game that well and be in the right place at the right time.
Willock won 60% of his duels, the highest percentage among Arsenal midfielders according to the club’s website, but he also lacked end product with 0 key pass and 0 shot on target. The English teenager will need to be more tidy in possession too. He led Arsenal players with 6 turnovers according to whoscored.com despite playing only 63 minutes. Willock’s fitness levels quickly dropped in the second half, showing the huge gap between the Premier League and U23 games.
Emery replaced Willock with Ceballos in the 64th. The Spanish manager nearly regretted that substitution. Ceballos put his team in trouble a couple of times with some casual passing. The Real Madrid loanee gave the ball away with a careless backheel flick in the 65th, a risky crossfield pass on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 69th and a stray pass in the 78th. Arsenal fans just hope that Ceballos will perform better than Barcelona loanee Suarez, who proved a flop last season.
A porous midfield
The Arsenal midfield was porous at times. Guendouzi and Xhaka were both dribbled past twice, according to whoscored.com. Only Newcastle wingback Ritchie did worse as the Gunners dribbled past him three times. Arsenal got away with a soft midfield against Newcastle but they will get punished against the stronger sides. Saint-Maximin cut inside Guendouzi in the 84th only to drag an effort that Leno easily saved. Offensively, Xhaka and Guendouzi can’t dictate the tempo like a Cazorla in his prime, or like Eriksen at Tottenham and David Silva at Manchester City.
Xhaka had a horrible start with 3 stray passes in the first 20 minutes. But he grew into the game and led all players with 84 passes, including 2 key passes. Xhaka also had a scoring chance in the 53rd when he glanced Nelson’s corner wide. The Switzerland international finished the game with 11 defensive actions (3 tackles, 8 recoveries), doing slightly better than Guendouzi, who made 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 block, 2 interceptions, 4 recoveries), according to the club’s website.
The Arsenal back four didn’t need much protection on Sunday because Bruce fielded a very defensive lineup. Sokratis and Chambers had so little work that they made no tackle. However, the Magpies still had a couple of good opportunities to open the scoring, exposing Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses. In the 16th, Monreal failed to close down Manquillo, who made a cross for Joelinton. The Brazilian striker couldn’t climb high enough to head the ball. A minute later, Joelinton met a cross from Ritchie only to head wide. Xhaka and Sokratis looked like training cones in the 26th when Joelinton dribbled past them to shoot straight at Leno.
The Gunners will need to improve their aerial performance because stats clearly showed their weakness in the air. Joelinton won 8 of 11 aerial duels while Aubameyang won 0 of 5, according to whoscored.com. Likewise, Newcastle centerback Lascelles won 7 of 10 aerial duels compared to 0 of 3 for Chambers and 4 of 6 for Sokratis.
In the rightback position, Maitland-Niles produced an outstanding performance, leading Arsenal players with 12 defensive actions (4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 recoveries). He cleared a dangerous cross after Saint-Maximin got the better of Monreal in the 67th. Besides his assist, Maitland-Niles also provided more penetration, leading all players with 4 successful dribbles out of 6. The only blemish in his performance was his 4 turnovers. On the opposite flank, Monreal put in a shift, making 9 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 7 recoveries) and setting up Mkhitaryan for a scoring chance in the 23rd.
In his post-match news conference, Emery said that the Gunners controlled the game. Well, I felt a bit nervous because of the inconsistent officiating. I thought the referee was right to book Nelson in the 25th, Mkhitaryan in the 36th and Xhaka in the 80th for late challenges. However, the referee became very lenient when the Magpies made similar fouls. He kept his cards in his pocket as Hayden made a late challenge on Mkhitaryan in the 61st, Saint-Maximin stamped on Xhaka’s ankle in the 70th, and Schar in the 13th and Lascelles in the 29th made cynical fouls on Willock. At least, the referee got one crucial call right when he booked Almiron for diving in the 18th. The Paraguay international was trying to win a penalty by looking for contact with Monreal.
The Gunners next host Burnley on Saturday before visiting Liverpool the following weekend. Emery knows what to expect from the Clarets. It will be a physical contest with a lot of crosses and long balls. Luiz will probably replace Chambers in the starting lineup while Torreira and Lacazette should start even if they lack a bit of match fitness.