Arsenal ride composed defence to victory in season opener
It’s back! After three long months of nonstop speculation and transfer window drama, the Arsenal is finally back in action in the Premier League. The Gunners opened the season on the road for the first time in eight years, and they made relatively easy work of a Newcastle side who are still learning new manager Steve Bruce’s methods. The road only gets harder from here, as a North London Derby and match with the defending Champions League winners sit on the not too distant horizon, but the Gunners have started the season off on the right foot,
A Positive Vibe
Going into the season, Arsenal supporters are in rare form, for once largely happy with the summer business Raul Sanllehi and the new-look back room staff have pulled off. The squad looks to have improved in both quality and depth, and fans are anxious to see how Unai Emery will deploy record signing Nicolas Pepe along side Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Dani Ceballos and Gabriel Martinelli should both earn minutes to supplement the dynamic front line, and David Luiz and Kieran Tierney should bolster a defence that struggled for much of last season once they too are integrated into the team.
Fans went into the first match, a far from straightforward away tie at St James Park, full of a confidence that stood in stark contrast the poor form the Gunners experienced away from the Emirates Stadium last season. This alone speaks to a rather different vibe surrounding the club and its supporters this season. A top four finish in the Premier League is far from assured with the standard never higher than it is at present, but for once, fans seem to feel their team isn’t going into battle undermanned.
As sure as winter follows the autumn, a poor run of form early in the season could see that tentative goodwill evaporate before the leaves have begun to turn. However, Unai Emery appears to have been handed a squad capable of playing football the way he wants.
Wow! What a…Bench?
Given the hectic nature of the summer for some players, and the different rates at which players are regaining fitness after holidays, injuries, last minute transfers and international football, the Gunners were never likely to a full-strength XI in their first match of the season. The teamsheet put out an hour before kickoff showed the truth in Unai Emery’s words during the week that only 100% fit and ready players would be selected to start the opener. In fact, many opined upon first seeing the lineups that the bench was even stronger than the starting XI.
This meant that Ceballos and Lacazette, who had both missed some training time with minor knocks earlier in the wee , were excluded from the starting XI. Pepe too was left on the bench to observe the first 70 minutes of his Arsenal debut before getting his feet wet to see out the victory. Perhaps most telling of all was the back four, none of whom might play in Emery’s strongest team by mid-season.
The Gunners had enough firepower on Sunday to seal their first win of the season, but it is perhaps quite encouraging to note that this may have been one of the weakest teams Arsenal will field all season in the Premier League, yet it was enough to take all three points of offer. This fact truly underlines the depth of this year’s squad, and it should give Emery enough options to rotate players throughout the season to keep them fresh without sacrificing too much quality on the pitch.
First Half Concerns Linger
If Sunday’s match was a good first step in the right direction for this team in Unai Emery’s pivotal second season in charge, it was not without its struggles. Among them, and all to familiar to Arsenal fans from last season, was a somewhat turgid start to the match that lasted at least a quarter of an hour before any fluency was found. Time may show that the lacklustre pace and intent the team displayed in the first half was simply a product of rust and first game jitters, but it did appear at times like the attack bogged down in the mud once Arsenal gained the final third.
In general, the Gunners movement off the ball was lacking in urgency, with too many passages of play stalling on the perimeter due to a lack of interior passing options. An element of this may be tactical, as Unai Emery prefers his players to stretch the shape as wide as possible in build up to create gaps in the opponent to play through, but at times this seems to make the team far too predictable in build up. Newcastle intitially did a good job limiting Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi from opening up the lines with their passing, but both would eventually find more space in the second half from which to work
Arsenal played far better in the second half, as they seemed to find their groove in the passing game, but only a clinical Aubameyang finish prevented them from leaving Newcastle with a single frustrating point and a goalless draw. It is often said that good teams are able to win even when playing poorly, and the Gunners did well to take maximum points with nowhere near their best effort. However, if Emery and this team truly are to take the next step and become a perennial Champions League club again, they cannot rely solely on strong second half performances to bail themselves out.
A Professional Defence
The attack may have been well off the pace on Sunday, but the defence was more than up to the task against Newcastle, putting in a composed, almost serene defensive performance. Calum Chambers made his return from a successful loan spell at Fulham last season and anchored the Arsenal defence along side Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the opener. The young Englishman was superb, taking on an almost sweeper-like role to compliment his more combative Greek partner, and exuding calm whenever he touched the ball.
Xhaka and Guendouzi formed an adequate shield in front of the backline, doing enough to keep Newcastle away from dangerous areas throughout, while the attackers held their shape rather than press the Newcastle defence with abandon. Nacho Monreal and Ainsley Maitland-Niles rewarded Emery’s return to his preferred back four shape with mature performances that limited easy chances for the hosts.
Bernd Leno was excellent in his first season opening start in North London, displaying a command of his area and sure hands when called upon to stifle any Newcastle momentum. His angles in coming out to claim high balls were especially encouraging, as his timidity in those situations last season was one of the few weakpoints in his game. He looks poised to have an excellent campaign as the unquestioned number one goalkeeper in the squad.
That Arsenal managed to claim its first away win and clean sheet of the season at the first time of asking will be a huge relief to club and fans alike. The last two seasons have seen the Gunners become far too easy to play through when away from home, and we can only hope that this match was the first step towards a much better defensive team in 2019/20.
Young Guns Make Waves
The massive excitement felt in North London as the summer transfer window drew to a close last week was dampened slightly by the departure of one of the club’s own youth products, Alex Iwobi. However, the Nigerian winger’s departure for Everton has been cushioned slightly by the emergence of the next wave of young, hungry Hale End talent into the first team spotlight.
The elder statesman of the group, Ainsley Maitland-Niles made the play of the match when his interception of a lifeless pass out to the flank and flawless cross found Aubameyang for the match-winning goal. He was not the only academy graduate to leave a mark on the opener, however, as Reiss Nelson was handed a start on the left wing and flashed his immense potential at times in the final third. However, the most impressive youngster on the day was widely considered to be Joe Willock.
The rangey midfielder has really come on over the last 12 months, growing from a timid player looking to make the safe play into one far more assertive and dynamic. He starred in the 10 role with a Mesut Ozil left home due to security concerns, and he did not disappoint. He completed 19 of his passes and came out on top in six of his ten duels. His statistics may not jump off the page, but it was the confidence with which he played, and the dynamism of his forward runs on the ball that has many fans excited to see how much he will get to play this season.
Alongside young signings like Gabriel Martinelli, Kieran Tierney and Matteo Guendouzi, the trio of youngsters not only look set to contribute this season, but all figure to be building blocks in the future as this new-look Arsenal finally begins to take shape. Sunday’s match was anything but memorable for what transpired on the pitch, but it has done nothing to dampen the spirits of a fanbase increasingly unafraid to be hopeful again.