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Post Match Review

Arsenal swat away Newcastle challenge to claim third place


After the most excruciating two week international break, the Premier League has finally returned! Arsenal fan had to wait until Monday to see their team in action once again, but it was worth the wait as the Gunners emerged from the match with a professional 2-0 victory over Newcastle. The crowd was in fine form, providing plenty of noise to spur the lads on until the final whistle, when Arsenal officially captured third place in the Premier League table.

It’s happened again

Before Arsenal even took the pitch on Monday to resume their push to the end of the season, welcome news arrived in the form of Liverpool beating Tottenham 2-1 on Sunday. The loss, Spurs tenth of the season, allowed the Gunners the opportunity to leapfrog the hated rivals into third place with a win against Newcastle. After Monday’s victory, for the first time in what seems like ages, Arsenal go into the final seven fixtures with destiny firmly in their own hands.

While it is fun to laugh at Tottenham’s untimely falling off the pace, it would be foolish to write them off just yet. Mauricio Pochettino is as good a manager as there is in the modern game, and while the squad is anything but deep, there is plenty of front line talent to keep Spurs in the top four and a Champions League place.

The only way Arsenal can ensure Champions League qualification is to continue taking maximum points from each match. In spite of this, given the ups and downs this season has thrown fans’ way, there could scarcely be a more welcome position for the club to be in at this stage of the season.

Dubai adventure preserved positive momentum

Given Arsenal’s strong run of results leading into the international break, it was perhaps a concern of many that the positive momentum that had been built up would be spoiled by the untimely lay off. However, Unai Emery’s decision to take the team to Dubai has so far proved to be a master stroke. The players were fit and energetic on Monday, patiently poking holes in a stubborn Newcastle defence that had recently foiled Manchester City with similar tactics to the ones deployed in defeat at the Emirates Stadium.

The passing was crisp and in rhythm for the home side, and despite a lukewarm beginning to the match, the players quickly upped the tempo and took the fight to Newcastle in the final 20 minutes of the first half. The Gunners began playing some rapid one touch football during this period, with some near misses as they inched ever closer to opening the scoring.

Finally, just in the half hour mark, Aaron Ramsey put Arsenal into the lead with his left footed snipe into the bottom corner after latching on to a loose ball in the penalty area. His goal was the result of sustained pressure on the Newcastle defence, and it would have been his second if not for a questionable foul call on Sokratis for a push in the box.

It may be too soon to judge the warm weather training week in Dubai, there is no question who the fitter team was on the Emirates pitch Monday night. It was yet another sign of the supreme fitness that Unai Emery demands of his players to play the style of football he wants, and the success that he has had this season in improving that aspect of this Arsenal squad.

Under his watch, it seems unlikely that the team will suffer from the late season fade that put an end to some promising campaigns in Arsène Wenger’s final years with the club.

Youthful exuberance pays off

Last season, going into such a pivotal match without Granit Xhaka and Héctor Bellerín might have spelled disaster for this Arsenal side. However, the club have managed to cope with the Spaniard’s long-term absence well since Ainsley Maitland-Niles returned to fitness following his early season broken leg, and Matteo Guendouzi did an excellent job filling in for the pivotal Xhaka against Newcastle. What he lacks of the Swiss midfield controller’s passing range and tactical intelligence is clawed back with sheer energy and desire to perform. 

Both players proved their value to club going forward, as they helped in securing another clean sheet for Bernd Leno while still putting in valuable attacking work. Neither are the finished article, as Guendouzi is still prone to being bullied off the ball and Maitland-Niles can still be too casual on the ball at times, but they are essential to what Raul Sanllehi terms as efficient squad building in the Gunners’ pursuit of becoming genuine title challengers once again.

Guendouzi knocked off some early rust in the opening 20 minutes to finish the evening with a healthy stat line,  with a 92% pass completion rate from a massive 117 touches, adding two successful dribbles to go along with a tackle, interception and two clearances for the match. Maitland-Niles may not jump off the stat sheet with a more pedestrian 84% pass completion, two tackles and an interception, but his dynamic runs down the right caused marking issues for Rafael Benítez’ conservative defensive shape.

The Newcastle formation involving a genuine back five required Arsenal to be sharp in order to break it down, and both players did their part in helping the team push on to create pressure situations for goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka. It was a mature performance from both, and a trend we all hope will continue for the rest of the season.

The new Mr. Clean Sheet

For a while this season, it was something of a black mark on Bernd Leno’s first year in England that the German had managed to keep so few clean sheets, netting just two in the first five months of the season. However, Leno is slowly inching his way up the rankings, having earned his fifth of the season against Newcastle. He now sits in a six way tie for 12th place in the Premier League rankings.

It would be easy to say that this has coincided with an improvement in the new Arsenal number one keeper’s performances, but equally the team in front of him has contributed to a steep decline in chances created by the opposition. At the end of 2018, the Gunners had an Expected Goals (xG) of 34.8 versus a lofty 29.91 opponent xG, quite a narrow margin compared to other top four contenders.

That differential has grown massively over the last 3 months, with Arsenal now chugging along at 54 xG versus an xGA of 42.6. They now slightly exceed North London rivals Tottenham with this differential, who have posted 51.24 xG and 40.1 xGA. 

While the defensive numbers in particular are still far from flattering compared to table toppers Liverpool and Manchester City, the improvement has been clear, and is also backed up by what fans are seeing on the pitch. Matches are not without their tense moments, but seldom have we seen the careless mistakes and soft goals that threatened to derail the season in the first half of the season.

Shkodran Mustafi is still receiving harsh criticism from all corners for his rash decision making, but the defence as a whole, Mustafi included, have showed plenty of improvement in the second half of the season. 

Lacazette leads from the front

Just how important is Alexandre Lacazette to this Arsenal side? Very. His incredible performances recently, including Herculean efforts to track back and defend when necessary, have allowed Unai Emery to drop Arsenal’s most valuable player according to a recent report, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to the bench. While he doesn’t have anywhere near the electrifying pace his strike partner possesses, his all-around game is almost beyond reproach.

He drops deep in buildup to play quick layoffs to wide players before turning up the pitch to make runs into the box. He battles much larger defenders for ever ball into his feet, and his short area burst sees him latch on to many balls in tight windows that appear futile upon release. 

Lacazette has rapidly become the most vital player in Unai Emery’s side, executing  the demanding Head Coach asks of him without question. The fans have gotten fully behind the Frenchman, who despite missing out once again on a call up to the French national team two weeks ago, has been one of the best players in the Premier League in 2019. He currently leads the team with seven Premier League assists to go along with his 13 goals in 30 appearances.

Whether leading the line alone or in tandem with Aubameyang, Lacazette has seemed to shine his brightest when his team has needed him most.

He was his usual self on Monday, participating in some excellent passing combinations and putting stress on the Newcastle defence with his constant movement in the box. He scored the clinching goal in the second half when, after a lovely pass from second half substitute Aubameyang, he beat his marker to the ball before lofting a deft chip over Dúbravka into the back of the net to give Arsenal the two goal cushion it needed to take the air out of Newcastle’s late charge for a tying goal.

As he slow danced with himself over by the corner flag in celebration of his goal, it seemed as if the whole stadium and fans watching from around the world knew they were looking at the Arsenal player of the season absolutely in his element. 

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