Post Match Review
Have Arsenal Finally Turned A Corner?
The Arsenal players and coaches may have returned from their warm-weather training in Dubai late last week, but it wasn’t until the second half of Sunday’s clash with Newcastle at the Emirates Stadium that the Gunners made a long-awaited emphatic statement of intent. The Gunners overcame lacklustre finishing in the first half to break the stalemate with a deluge of goals, ultimately burying the Magpies 4-0.
It was the exact sort of performance that the team has been itching to put in since Mikel Arteta’s arrival just before Christmas. Will it prove to be yet another false dawn in a long line of promising moments undone by inconsistency? Or will fans be able to look back on this match as the moment this Arsenal team finally found its feet in the current season, and ultimately begin the long march back to the sharp end of the table?
A Working Holiday
While most Premier League clubs blessed with the benefit of a rare gap in their schedule this past two weeks used the time to fine-tune tactics and fitness in preparation for the season’s home stretch, Arsenal Head Coach Mikel Arteta was determined to make the most of the time. Arsenal decamped to Dubai during the respite to finally begin the installation of his more elaborate tactical concepts and to build up the fitness that had dropped off a cliff in Unai Emery’s last few months in charge.
For Arteta, the trip was deemed a resounding success, with the Basque coach largely impressed with his squad’s work ethic and attitude during the week. The morale, which had been improving under Arteta in spite of the results not yet equaling the optimism, was buoyed further by the Emirati adventure. Indeed, it was a focused and determined team that took the pitch at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday to face Newcastle.
With recognisable tactical concepts emerging more and more by the match, including a very Guardiola-esque 3-2-5 shape in the buildup. His philosophy of spacing involves players shifting across their vertical lanes as the ball moves around the formation, ensuring the player on the ball always has passing options and the team can create numerical superiority in all areas of the pitch.
These finer tactical points were always going take more time than extracting improves defensive effort and attitude during the “Honeymoon period” of Arteta’s tenure, but the match on Sunday showed that the players have begun to take their lessons to heart. Mikel Arteta deserves enormous credit for the way he has totally shifted the mood around the club in a positive direction, but emphatic victories like Sunday’s will do far more to convince players to totally buy into the club’s path into the future.
An Imperfect Clean Sheet
While few supporters would have doubted that Arteta would represent an improvement over Unai Emery as a coach of attacking football, few could have predicted how rapidly he has changed the fans’ perception of the defence. For years, supporters have bemoaned the apparent lack of quality in the backline and put the club under a lot of pressure to spend big on the market to compete with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City for the best defenders available.
In fairness, it seemed that Arteta felt similarly at first, as the club brought in two defensive reinforcements in the form of Cédric Soares and Pablo Mari in January, but the defenders already at the club have stepped up their game too. Since Arteta assumed control, the Gunners have yet to surrender more than two goals in a match, and they have racked up four clean sheets in all competitions since Christmas.
Sunday saw the Gunners earn a second consecutive clean sheet for just the second time this season. However, it was not without its moments as Newcastle danger men Allan Saint-Maximine and Miguel Almiron were about to find occasional success breaking through the Arsenal lines with their direct runs. Only the continuing excellence of goalkeeper Bernd Leno and a bit of good fortune kept the Gunners out of trouble in the first half before the attack could heat up.
In spite of the occasional half-chance for the Magpies, the Arsenal defence maintained their composure for the majority of the match, with Shkodran Mustafi, in particular, relishing his newfound confidence and starting berth. The German won seven aerial duels and made nine clearances on the day, while completing the third-most passes in the team with 80, including five successful long balls. He and David Luiz complimented each other well on the day, with Luiz dropping a little deeper to protect Leno while Mustafi frequently stepped up to help the midfield create numbers in possession. Both players have been key to the Gunners recent defensive resurgence, and their unlikely chemistry has resulted in some of the most assured play at the back fans have seen in some time.
Back On Track
Mikel Arteta’s arrival finally signalled the end of the schizophrenic tactics and perpetually re-shuffled starting elevens that had made building positive momentum nigh on impossible under Unai Emery. Perhaps no two players would have been more relieved to see the transition than Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette, the former having been dropped unceremoniously in each of Emery’s two seasons at Arsenal and the latter forced to contribute massive defensive effort while being starved of goalscoring opportunities at the other end due to the Spaniard’s deeply flawed tactical decisions.
Both players have proved physically up to the intensity levels Arteta requires of his players, but until Sunday, each was in the middle of a long scoring drought. Ozil, who scored Arsenal’s third goal in the 90’ before being substituted to warm applause and a smiling reception on the bench. He had been the lynchpin for most of the match, the clever flicks and the aggressive runs into the vacated spaces of a playing finally playing full of confidence featuring heavily in his repertoire,
Alexandre Lacazette might have started the match on the bench, with Arteta electing to hand Eddie Nketiah his first Premier League start, but the Frenchman arrived in the 85’ to immediately help Arsenal extend the advantage, assisting on Ozil’s goal just 5 minutes later. He would go one better in the dying moments of stoppage time, capitalising on a brilliant attacking move to bury Nicolas Pépé’s pass in the back of the net. The goal was his first since 12 December against Standard Liege, and his first in the Premier League since Brighton at the Emirates Stadium a week prior.
Up until Sunday, the lack of production from the duo had lead many fans to begin questioning their continued inclusion in the starting XI. Having both suffered mightily from inconsistency in themselves and their fellow attackers, fans will now hope that both players will kick on, ready to share the burden in front of goal with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has scored approximately 40% of Arsenal’s Premier League goals this season.
Two Seize Their Chance
With Sead Kolasinac not quite ready for a return to action and Kieran Tierney still some way off a return from a surgically repaired shoulder, Bukayo Saka once again rose to the challenge presented by Newcastle in his temporary left-back role. The 18-year-old was ever-present high on the left flank when Arsenal had the ball, and he combined often with Aubameyang, who tended to tuck into more central areas, leaving space for the youngster to operate.
Saka was a constant menace to the right side of the Magpies’ defence, hammering in seven crosses, completing 90% of his passes and securing a sublime assist to Nicolas Pépé after making two defenders look absolutely foolish. Fans have already begun talking about his long term prospects at left-back, but for now, the winger will be happy just to be seeing so much of the pitch with the first eleven.
With Alexandre Lacazette having struggled mightily before the break, Eddie Nketiah was rewarded for his excellent form in training since returning from his loan with his first-ever Premier League start. Starting the match at centre forward, Nketiah’s influence drifted throughout the match, but he showed glimpses of why Arteta and the club hold him in such high regard. He has tremendous acceleration into the box, and he might have had multiple clear cut scoring chances had his teammates picked their pass with a bit more consideration. As it stood, he very nearly broke the deadlock in the second half with a thunderous attempt ricocheting off the crossbar to a collective groan around the stadium.
Nketiah has an opportunity for the rest of the season, along with fellow young gun Gabriel Martinelli, to prove the club can take a chance on their immense talents going forward, perhaps even freeing the club to unload one of the established strikers in the summer to fund further investment in the squad. The young Englishman has impressed not just Arsenal, but the legendary Marcelo Bielsa in his brief time in Leeds. In the modern game, one can return with few greater references than that.