It wasn’t entirely comfortable, but Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Newcastle was deserved and a good way to get back on track after last week’s defeat. We bossed possession, had 24 attempts on goal (although about half of those were Nuno Tavares in the opening period!), and produced some moments of real quality in the second half to win the game.
Mikel Arteta stuck with Albert Sambi Lokonga and Tavares after their difficulties at Anfield, a show of trust in his young players and he was rewarded for that. I thought both of them were excellent yesterday, and it was a decent piece of management. It would have been easy to bring back Kieran Tierney in particular, and I don’t think it would have been ‘punishment’ for either of the summer signings, but his faith in them was evident and their performances backed that up.
The return of Martin Odegaard was likely about finding a way through a packed Newcastle defence, and that’s what we got straight away. 11 men behind the ball, a very deep defensive block that we struggled to break down. In part it’s because that can be quite difficult, particularly if you’re playing against a team who are really good at it, but I’m not sure that’s Newcastle.
The big problem for me was the pace we played at. It was just too sluggish and predictable, and it was something Arteta acknowledged afterwards, saying:
It was too slow. Our first phase with our centre-backs was too slow, we didn’t have enough threat in behind and we didn’t occupy certain spaces which they defended well. Once we interpreted that better, we attacked much better.
There were chances in that first half. Odegaard forced the keeper into a very good save from a free kick (won after we’d injected a bit of pace into our build-up); Sambi found Saka with a glorious pass which he put just wide; and the keeper again made a super save from a Smith Rowe header. That, of course, led to the best opportunity of the first half, the rebound falling to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the back post but inexplicably he hit the woodwork from a couple of yards out. It was a bad miss, especially for a player like him. This is supposed to be his bread and butter, and while I acknowledge the volume of chances we provide to our strikers is still too small, he should score that. The various reaction shots of Arsenal players said it all.
The other thing to mention is that it could have been more costly. Again Aaron Ramsdale made some very good saves and it’s hard not to wonder how much more difficult Newcastle might have been if they had a goal to hang onto. Still, the second half was much better, Saka set the tone early with some lovely footwork to create a shooting chance although the shot was a bit tame. The opener came after some fine interplay involving Sambi, Tavares, Smith Rowe and Saka, the latter making a quick dart in behind to pick up the left-back’s excellent pass, before firing it into the far corner. A goal of this current, youthful present, but a glimpse into what the future holds for this team if they can stay and grow together.
Unfortunately, Saka picked up an injury shortly afterwards, and when it came time to replace him, Arteta again put his stock in youth. He could have easily chosen Nicolas Pepe as a like for like swap, or shuffled things around and gone with Lacazette, but instead went with Gabriel Martinelli. He hasn’t had a lot of playing time this season, and when he has played, it hasn’t always been effective, but it certainly was yesterday. Again, it was a goal made with fresh squad ingredients. Ben White played a good pass into the path of Tomiyasu who had made a run down the right; he made a first time dink over the defence for the forward to run onto; and the Brazilian’s finish on the run, on the volley, with the keeper coming towards him was both superb and brave.
Martinelli should have had a penalty too, an attempted shoulder charge in the box saw Jamaal Lascelles miss his opponent’s shoulder and crash into the Arsenal youngster’s head. I don’t know how VAR can look that and not take the necessary action. Football has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to head injuries and collisions, writing off too many of them as accidental. As people pointed out to me on Twitter, other more physical sports have a zero tolerance approach to this kind of incident, and it’s time football did too.
Afterwards, Arteta spoke glowingly about Martinelli, saying:
“It is a big moment for him. I’m especially happy for him because how he behaves. Some players are respectful when you make some decisions, and some players are very respectful, like he is.
“He’s patient, but at the same time he’s really pushing and challenging and it makes every decision that you make even harder because he deserve more and I’m really pleased because he really helped the team to get the points today.”
It’s a timely contribution from Martinelli too. With AFCON coming, we’re going be without Aubameyang and Pepe, and despite some worries about both, we have a busy schedule and we’re going to need goals. If he can start to chip in with greater frequency – which is, of course, tied to him getting more minutes – then it can only be a good thing.
Without wanting to end on a down note, because I think the focus should be on another win, another clean sheet, and the continued green shoots we see coming from the younger elements in this squad, it’s not unreasonable to worry a bit about some of the more experienced players. I was hoping for more from Thomas Partey in this game, but we didn’t see enough, and it’s now four games without a goal for Aubameyang. Not quite a worrying streak, but it does feel as if that first half strike would have been beneficial for him as well as the team, obviously.
However, if we continue to get what we’re getting from those at the other end of the age spectrum, we should be able to offset that until they find some form again. But make no mistake, we need them to do that pretty quickly when you look at what’s coming up on our schedule.
Right, let’s leave it there, and keep a close eye on today’s fixtures which could make this very decent win even better when it comes to Premier League points. Have a great Sunday, and join James and I for an Arsecast Extra tomorrow.