Monday night football, as dire as it might sound, turned out to be a great night for the gunners who won convincingly a tricky Newcastle side in a game of two different halves. Despite the end result the game was not done and dusted until pretty late and the Gunners presented themselves with their two faces, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Arsenal lined up with roughly the expected starting XI. Thomas Partey’s introduction in the starting lineup gave us glimpses of what he can offer in the future, Tierney returned to the squad while Soares started instead of Bellerin who needed a rest. Emile Smith Rowe was occupying the no.10 role, receiving the ball in the half spaces and moving it nicely and quickly to the Lacazette or the wings.
Newcastle lined up in a 4-4-2 defensive formation, gambling on the aerial power of Andy Carroll and the pace of Almiron to create havoc in the Arsenal defence. Shelvey was the midfield link and was mainly tasked to try long balls behind the defence while the back four stayed back and kept their line. Newcastle’s game plan was to close the spaces in their defence and try to launch long balls to either Carroll’s head or find Wilson in space.
For the majority of the first half, Arsenal had the possession of the ball and they were trying to find a way past this very well drilled Newcastle defence. Steve Bruce’s side were set up exactly for this kind of game; defend deep and well and hit on the break.
Looking at the match stats of the first half, one can realise easily what kind of game it was. While the Gunners had a massive chance in the 7th minute with Aubameyang finding the post, the rest of the first half was different. Arsenal was trying again and again to unlock the Newcastle defence, but there was something missing; it looked like in the most 50/50 situations, Newcastle players got stuck in the ball harder and with greater confidence than Arsenal players. It all seemed a bit slow and many times, Newcastle bypassed the Gunners high press with ease.
The addition of Shelvey in the opposition midfield meant that they could keep the ball and try to break the press of the gunners and in the first half they managed to do it a couple of times. In this case, the addition of Partey wasn’t helpful as he may not be ready yet to press consistently and in the aggression Arteta wants.
Arsenal started the second half brilliantly; more creativity, pace and time and time again, managed to bypass the Newcastle press and find spaces in the opposition half. In a sentence, the team managed to correct everything that was going wrong in the first half.
Looking at the match stats of the second half, you can clearly see the difference with the first half. The ball retention was very good from the Gunners point of view, total shots were double in comparison to the first half, meaning that the gunners managed to find space in and around the box to shoot. And this is exactly what happened.
In the 50th minute, Partey bypassed the Newcastle press just outside Arsenal’s box, then he found Aubameyang in space, who finished it in typical Aubemeyang fashion.
10 minutes later, Smith Rowe received the ball on the left side of the pitch, dribbled past Lascelles on the edge of the box and found Saka, who finished from the penalty area.
Finally, in the 77th minute, Soares made a run from the right side, and made sweeping cross from the byline that found Aubameyang who tapped it in the net.
Arsenal showed patience and resilience for the duration of the game. Partly that was because of the reliability Partey seems to infuse in his teammates, the energy Emile Smith Rowe shows in the final third and the fact that Aubameyang seems to break free from the period of bad form he was in until December. Also, it has to be mentioned that although ESR gets the majority of the credits for the creative play, actually Xhaka is the one in the last games that plays the more progressive passes forward.
Certainly ESR’s creativity is a key factor, and have a look at the interplay of ESR and Saka on the right side. Both are very dynamic and can seamlessly swap positions depending on the play situation.
Looking at both players’ heatmap, it is obvious that ESR can float wide to overload a side, while Saka frequently cuts inside to make runs inside the box.
Five consecutive clean sheets alongside 4 wins in the 5 last games would seem like a joke just a month ago. Surely Arteta’s work on the training pitch is starting to show on the pitch and also, stats back Arteta too.
As Tom Worville wrote on Twitter “After last night, this is the first time in Arteta’s reign in which Arsenal have created better chances than they’ve conceded over any ten game stretch.” Is this the turning point of the season? I would hope so, the next month is a *very* challenging one.
(Fixturelist in February: Man Utd, Wolves, Aston Villa, Leeds, Benfica, Man City, Benfica, Leicester)
By Stelios Mouratidis