After completing the winter break in Dubai that Arteta likened to a “mini preseason”, Arsenal walked into Emirates Stadium knowing that it would be the day fans would expect them to begin showing the value of their time off together. They would want at least a glimpse of what they had been working on to shed light on how the remainder of the season would go. Would Arsenal continue to struggle to find consistent end products in their attacking and settle for draws or would their form in front of net start to yield wins?
In a previous article this week I laid out five things that I would like to see from them to show their time together was worthwhile. Check it out here for a full read and explanation, but below are the five main points.
- Rested, Refreshed, Reset
- Balancing the Attack and Defense
- In Game Dynamics
- Confident and Hungry
Needless to say, after the long wait, Arsenal did not let the fans down. It wasn’t a flawless 90 minutes. A first half that will have had many Arsenal fans fearing the worst as they watched their team struggle to make use of the nearly 70% possession or take advantage of the chances they created. The Gunners would go into the half tied at zeroes, but an absolutely fantastic second half will have given everyone a bit of belief that Arsenal could make something happen this year with the games that remain.
There is no doubt that tougher tests lie ahead against teams that won’t be as willing to let Arsenal control so much possession and dictate the flow of the game. I, myself, stated that the real first checkpoint would be their game later this week at Olympiacos, not this first match against Newcastle. However, in season of struggles, we must give them credit when it is earned. And, in a display the checked off every one of my winter break wishes, they have truly earned it.
If you didn’t see the game, haven’t watched highlights, or aren’t sure how the game progressed out check out the Match Report from yesterday before we dive into what Arsenal did to find success and how they checked each of the boxes fans will have been looking for from the performance.
Winter Wishes Received
I did not expect to be able to discuss achieving all 5 wishes right away and want to be able to focus on the numbers 2 and 3 for you so I will launch right in.
Rested, Refreshed, Reset: Arteta talked about the trip being a bonding time to work on things, but mostly a time to refresh themselves together and reset. After 9 matches in just over a month it was clearly needed. Not only was a rest and refresh needed, but a reset for some of Arsenal’s veteran players. But how would they bounce back and react coming off the break? After a sluggish start to the game that now suggests a period of time to shake off some of the rust, we began to see the benefits of their break.
Right from the whistle in the second half we saw the front-line sprinting to put Newcastle under pressure, the ball being zipped around, and an Arsenal side kicking themselves out of first gear. It took just two minutes for Arsenal to work their first shot of the half, instead of twenty as in the first half. As the half continued, it became only a matter of time before Arsenal scored as they put Newcastle under constant pressure. Going on to get a goal from Aubameyang, a goal and two assists from Pepe, a goal from Ozil, and a late assist and goal from Lacazette was every bit of proof the Arsenal stars may have reset themselves to find some better form.
Balancing the Attack and Defense: Before the break, Arsenal had found a way to patch up the defense, conceding less than a goal per game. However, that defense was at the cost of creating many offensive chances. There was a hope over the break that Arteta would be able to work with the team on creating a balance between the attack and defense to allow Arsenal to protect their backline while picking and choosing opportune times to get numbers into the attack. Afterall, throwing numbers forward to get goals is only beneficial if you are able to keep them out as well.
Knowing Newcastle is a team that is willing to let teams possess the ball, we saw Arteta put Ceballos in the midfield pairing. As we heard earlier this year, Arteta finds Ceballos’ value attached to that pairing spot, less so the isolated role often filled by Ozil. A new and potentially risky move from Arteta that paid off. Ceballos had by far his best performance since earlier this year against Burnley. By being a part of the midfield pairing, he was able to play a more box-to-box role offering defensive support with an interception and 9 recoveries while facilitating the attack with the passing he is known for. In this role, when receiving the ball, he was facing the field of play instead of having his back to the goal and everyone he is trying to combine with. This allowed him to take positive first touches, to distribute the ball quickly including finding Pepe wide for the first goal, or carry the ball forward into more attacking positions. Not a knock against the value of Torreira or Xhaka, but it’s a skill that Arsenal’s midfield have been missing throughout the year.
Because Ceballos was proving capable of picking out a pass, Newcastle midfielders that were sitting in deep were forced to step to him giving Ozil more room to operate between the midfield and back lines, while drifting into dangerous positions creating overloads on the wing.
Finally, it would be impossible to write about this game without talking about Bakayo Saka and his incredible performance. With Xhaka in the midfield continuing to drop into the backline allowing Saka to comfortably get into the attack and overlap Aubameyang, Saka was devastatingly effective. It opened the door for him to make individual plays and unlock the defense for roles to create chances and an assist. All of this leading to four goals from four different goal scorers and a clean sheet. A perfect result of balancing attack and defense.
In Game Dynamics: Throughout the year,we have seen a stale attack with Ozil and Arsenal constantly looking to overload the right while Aubameyang tucks in on the left. The problem was that this was predictable over 90 minutes and forcing Pepe to remain wide on the touchline and away from the center where any attacking player is usually most dangerous. Arteta having time in the last weeks to work on how to change things up and add another layer to their attacking game clearly paid dividends. On top of the aspects discussed above, Ozil and Arsenal were able to pick and choose which side they wanted to overload keeping the defense guessing and allowing Pepe more freedom to come central and get involved. Something we had yet to see that yielded a goal and two assists for the £72millon man. Even better, one assist from a whipped in cross from wide and one on an easy slot back from the end line after working his way central and slipping in behind.
This variety was visibly more dangerous from an Ozil perspective, someone Arsenal have looked for more from. He was able to pick up the ball on multiple occasions from the left side, turn, and drive at the defense cutting across them to shift play to the right – something Newcastle struggled to keep up with as the second half went on. Arsenal will look to find ways to continue to find these spaces and opportunities against teams that may not be as compact creating more natural spaces to play in. Being able to flip the tactics over is a brilliant step in the right direction for this struggling attack.
Camaraderie: If I could, I would simply paste the team celebration that came after Lacazette’s goal. The feeling in the air around the stadium, the way the players dogpiled onto one another in the corner, the smiles on faces – clearly a burden had been lifted. But there was something more. In a game where everyone looked to be on the same page, seeing a celebration like that suggests that in recent weeks this team has come together. It will take this level of camaraderie to achieve their goal of salvaging this season and getting back into European play next year.
Confident and Hungry: For multiple recent seasons, and this year on multiple occasions, Arsenal have been criticized for not putting games away, for letting teams back into games, and not being hungry enough after scoring a goal or two to go get more. Yesterday, after scoring two goals in three minutes, Arsenal were let off twice. Once on a shot from inside the six-yard box that Newcastle scuffed wide and again, minutes later, when Newcastle put a shot off the inside of the post.
In the past, we may have seen Arsenal shell up. Simply look to see the game out but find themselves under attack for the remainder of the game. A tactic that has seen them give away multiple leads late in games, drop points, and one that won’t work if they are going to make a late run. To see them recover from those scares, regain composure, and go on to score a third and fourth goal was the level of confidence and hunger they will need from here on out. It was beautiful to watch and it’s the mark of a great team. How often have people commented on the abilities of Manchester City or Liverpool to devastate teams with large margined victories? Adding this skill is something Arsenal will need to do in the next year of this rebuild they are undertaking.
As I said, there will be many tougher opponents ahead than Newcastle, but the signs are there of what this Arsenal team is capable of. With Olympiacos later this week, followed by Ancelotti and Everton, Arsenal will get their chance to build on this performance and take a second and third step in the right direction.
Arteta will no doubt continue to change things up to fit the game he expects to be played, but this shows he has options. After missing out on a starting spot, I would imagine we will see Lacazette back in the team on Thursday, but what does that mean for Gabrielle Martinelli who has been fantastic this year? Additionally, what does the performance of Dani Ceballos mean for Lucas Torreria? Arteta was rewarded for putting out a more, naturally attacking lineup, but to work Torreira in again will mean you remove the passing abilities of Ceballos or Torriera has to learn the role that Xhaka plays by dropping into the backline allowing Saka the freedom he needs to be effective in the attack. All things to keep eyes on. I think we all will be excited to see Arsenal take the field again later this week to build on this performance, get the Europa league started, and see what is next for Mikel’s Gunners.
Until then, enjoy the return of that winning feeling, Gooners.