Arsenal’s FA Cup title defense started yesterday, and the draw could have been an easier one. Arsenal faced Newcastle, a side that most fans would still expect to win against, but one that certainly presents a higher degree of difficulty than, say, Rotherham, Stoke, QPR or Morecambe — teams other Premier League rivals drew for their first ties. Such is the luck of the draw.
The match itself was a strange one to me. A lot of fans online were quick to declare that Arsenal played terribly for the first 105 minutes. Some even going as far as saying Arsenal were shit. I didn’t see it that way and am more inclined to find that sort of analysis to be the result of the modern football fan that views a lot of the game in black and white. Either teams and players are amazing, great, ‘generational’ —eye roll — or they are absolute rubbish and shit.
I don’t want to pretend Arsenal were great, nor good at certain times, but after 45 minutes they had worked 7 shots, 17 shots after 90 minutes, and finished extra time and the match with 25 shots, and 9 on goal. Three weeks ago, Arsenal were a side struggling to break 10 shots with 3 on goal. In fact, Arsenal have averaged only 4 shots on goal in the Premier League this season. Add in Arsenal’s 61% ball possession, and the fact that they conceded only 2 shots on goal in 120 minutes, and it feels difficult to classify as ‘shit’.
However, it should be pointed out that Arsenal struggled to finish things off of the final third. At the most pivotal points, their technical skills let them down. Heavy touches, too many touches, wayward final passes, a second too late on the release, or just subpar finishing. Understanding why that was the case seems easier now than ever before. Simply put, Arsenal removed the players that have been performing and producing in the final third and replaced them with poorer quality.
Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Alexandre Lacazette, all were replaced by Willian, Pepe, and Reiss Nelson. Nelson was quiet, Willian was, well, Willian, and Pepe simply isn’t as productive as Bukayo Saka. In the end it resulted in a side that could come close, could produce little half chances or glimpses of attacking play, but not one that had the bit of extra quality needed to score goals.
That shouldn’t be entirely surprising. It was a side comprised of the people that struggled to produce results for two month, while Arsenal slide further and further down the table. It had become pretty clear to a lot of fans, but a change was still needed, so kudos to Mikel Arteta for recognizing the situation and making the change early, rather than sticking with his initial selection. In the 56th minute, Emile Smith Rowe entered and in the 66th minutes, Saka and Xhaka entered.
From the moment Smith Rowe entered, the tempo picked up, especially in those central areas and the final third. When Saka joined and Xhaka supplemented, suddenly the attack had some actual teeth. In the 102nd minute when Lacazette was brought on, all the pieces fell into place.
A great bit of play that saw Saka dink a pass for Lacazette to try to contend for and get a head on. The moment Saka plays that pass, Smith Rowe is looking to get in behind through the open space left by a deeper playing Saka. Lacazette does wonderfully to get just enough of his head on the ball and nod it into the path of ESR who rockets a splendid finish past the keeper. It’s the second nice goal in from those three in as many games.
It was a goal that ESR has deserved for what he has done in the the last four matches with Arsenal and one that clearly meant the world to him to score, but one that almost didn’t happen. It took a VAR intervention to reverse a rash red card shown to Smith Rowe. Was never a red, maybe not even a yellow, but would have been changed the whole game and likely seen Arsenal try to hold out for penalties.
After the first goal, Newcastle has to push a little more, but that shouldn’t take away from the quality play that results in Arsenal’s second. Saka chips a ball to the back post where Auba’s headed cross is blocked right back to him. He recycles it to Tierney and clears the space.
From the edge of the box it is a lovely one-two between Tierney and Xhaka that springs Kieran into all kinds of space. It puts Newcastle’s defender in no man’s land leaving Tierney with the task of simply steering his low cross around the onrushing defender. Aubameyang gets the tap in and finally gets his name on the scoresheet. Honestly, the amount of quality balls Tierney has offered his attacking partners should see him with another five to ten assists already this season, but he gets one in this match and it will feel nice.
Newcastle’s Andy Carroll had plenty of opportunities to put his side ahead, but a few attempts not quite good enough and one excellent string of saves, one on one, from Leno denied him scoring.
Arsenal are through, it’s their fourth win in four, and there are plenty of things to takeaway from it all.
Despite the names, a real “cup squad” feel
There were plenty of big names in the Arsenal’s squad, and many of them were the same names that Arsenal and Arteta seemed to be relying on early on. Those same names resulted in Arsenal going on a two month slide and producing some of the worst play under Arteta.
Despite having names like Pepe, Willian, Nelson, Willock, and possibly even Elneny, it all have a very “cup squad” feel. There was a drop off in play, drop off in end quality, and it seems that more of a divide in quality has formed. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in that depth, but it seemed very clear who should be Arsenal’s go-to squad members and who is rotational.
It’s not a bad development for a squad to make as it looks to advance its overhaul to the next stage. The important part is that Arteta continues to learn form this lessons and find his best eleven.
You don’t need to tell me that Willian has been awful this year, nor, that the idea he is going to be around Arsenal for three years is enough to keep any fan up at night.
Yesterday Willian was given a shot at playing as Arsenal’s number 10 and the first half was oaky, the effort in the second half was awful. Many people felt he was terrible in the first half as well, I didn’t quite agree. He was getting into good spots, he was linking play, and carrying it up the field at times, but that was the brilliance of having Emile Smith Rowe, a natural number 10, subbed into the same match.
Everything that Smith Rowe does is faster, more decisive, and better than Willian. He does it all with half the touches, in half the time, and more frequently. Willian’s attempts to move the ball along often sees him take far too many touches, often ponderous on the ball, and once he plays the pass he can be seen standing and watching.
It’s night and day when you compare it to Smith Rowe who does everything on one or two touches while still maintaining a high level of quality. ESR has also become better at ensuring he isn’t marked out of a match by recognizing when he is not going to work himself into a position to get on the ball, anticipating where it’s going to go next, and getting ahead of things to put himself in a spot to get it from the next guy.
With Willian being beat on the right wing by Saka, and at times Pepe, beaten on the left wing by Aubameyang Martinelli, and more, and now beaten in the center by Emile Smith Rowe. It leaves no room for uncertainty — something has to be done about Willian.
Pablo Mari and that backline, stellar again
Plenty of people were watching the backline to see how things went given the upcoming return of Gabriel. Gabriel has been one of Arsenal’s most consistent top performers this whole season, but was replaced by Pablo Mari who has been outstanding.
In the last four matches, Arsenal have conceded only 10 shots on goal and Pablo Mari has been stout in the defense.
Against Newcastle, Mari tallied:
- 5 clearances
- 1 blocked shot
- 3 interceptions
- 4 tackles
- 8 duels won
- 8 recoveries
Add to that 73/78 passing, 6/9 long balls, 2 key passes, and 3/3 dribbles. 3 out of 3 dribbles? Who is he?
He has helped Arsenal win their last our matches, deserves a ton of credit for his performance, and certainly has put together a very convincing argument for retaining his spot even beyond Gabriel returning to full health. We will see what Mikel chooses to do.
The start of Arsenal’s FA Cup defense is off and running, it was clear how important Smith Rowe and Saka have become, and it’s evident that those young guns have now become the big guns around London Colney.
They were exciting again, they produced results again, and it has this Arsenal fan excited to see them playing together in a few days against Crystal Palace. Back to the Premier League to keep this momentum rolling.