As exciting as the prospect of 90 minutes of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was for Arsenal supporters, Sunday’s 2-1 loss on Tyneside to Newcastle was yet another example of the Gunners’ anaemic away form in 2018. There was plenty of excitement and optimism early as the Arsenal grabbed the early lead, but moods quickly soured as Newcastle first answered the goal and then scored another of their own, ultimately taking the match 2-1. Supporters are left with more questions following the loss, but there were indications that the match was not high on Arsene Wenger’s list of priorities for the rest of the season. The Gunners will have a chance to right their form against West Ham next Sunday while Newcastle can celebrate sealing their top flight safety after a strong performance at St James Park.
Another Premier League Debut
For the second match in a row, the Gunners welcomed a youngster into the starting XI for their full Premier League debut as Joe Willock got the start at the number 10 position on Sunday. The 18 year old has been arguably the least talked about of the 4 recent academy graduates making inroads into the first team this season, but Arsene Wenger put a tremendous amount of faith in the youngster against Newcastle, handing him the proverbial keys to the Gunners attack. He showed a good turn of pace and a more adventurous side to his game than fans had seen of him early in the season when he was getting minutes in Europe and cup competitions, but he ultimately failed to generate much of a positive impact on the match. He completed 82% of his passes and made 1 interception, but he spent a lot of time off the ball seeming to defer to his more experienced teammates.
Joe Willock is not a bad player, and he certainly could become an effective Premier League regular with time, but he suffers in the eyes of Arsenal fans because he doesn’t have a particular skill or trait that demands you take notice. He doesn’t have nearly the flair of Reiss Nelson or the positional versatility and pace/strength/skill blend of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and he doesn’t have that assassin’s mentality to score like Eddie Nketiah. In time, as he grows accustomed to the pace and intensity of the Premier League, he might start to show more of a unique personality on the pitch. After all, few fans knew how skilful Maitland-Niles was until this season when maturity and confidence allowed him to express himself within the team. It is good news any time a young player makes his debut at the highest level, but for now it is hard to call Willock’s debut the most memorable we have seen his season.
A Blossoming Relationship
When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was lured away from Borussia Dortmund in January, fans and pundits alike appeared to be split into 2 camps. On one side, some immediately viewed it as an indictment on the summer signing of Alexandre Lacazette, who was only a half a season removed from a massive step up in competition from Ligue 1 to the Premier League and in his conditioning regiment. Before going out of the lineup for 6 weeks with a knee injury, he had gone through a bit of a barren spell, going 9 matches without a goal, but had largely done well with his new challenge to that point. On the other side of the argument however, there were some convinced the two could coexist on the same pitch, and the early evidence suggests they might be right.
Despite ultimately losing the match, the synergy with which Aubameyang and Lacazette operated has to be encouraging to most fans. The duo combined on the Gunners only goal of the match, following a pinpoint long ball over the top from Shkodran Mustafi to Aubameyang, who laid a fluttering ball across the goal mouth to a charging Lacazette, who made no mistake in smashing it home from close range. The goal was a perfect demonstration of what £100 million can buy a club in elite striking talent, as the pace and acrobatic grace with which the pair executed that goal is not something that has often been seen at this club since kit man Vic Akers was laying out a number 14 shirt with ‘Henry’ on the back before every match. Results can only further improve with the likes of Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the starting XI to feed the pair chances-service was severely lacking on Sunday- and supporters are right to be exciting about the Gunners’ attacking prospects going forward.
Priorities Of Each Team Clear
As a supporter of a club, especially if you are one with a significant financial investment in watching the team perform, it is only natural that you might view every league match as equally important, and a “must win” for a team that has languished in 6th place for much of the campaign. However, it would be impossible to ignore the clear shift in priorities at the club this season, starting at the top with the manager. Arsene Wenger’s decision to heavily rotate his squad in the league the last 2 matches has really underscored how important the Europa League is in his view. In many respects, whether or not Arsenal qualifies for the Europa League next year is out of their hands (though finishing above Burnley will certainly help their case) as it depends on Southampton’s performance in the FA Cup, so Wenger is choosing to focus his team’s efforts on the matches that do: the Gunners’ semifinal match-up with Atletico Madrid. Fans may not agree with the logic now, particularly after enduring a continuation of Arsenal’s torrid away form since the start of the year, but if the Gunners lift the Europa League trophy to close out the season, all will be well.
As for the Gunners’ opponents on Sunday, manager Rafa Benitez has finally gotten the once proud Newcastle back to where they belong-safely in the top half of the Premier League table-and it shows with their play on the pitch. The 11 players on the pitch in black and white fought like mad as one, jumping on the visitors after falling behind early to Lacazette’s brilliant goal, and that positive momentum was only compounded by the electric crowd at St. James Park. There was nothing but confidence on Tyneside in the buildup to the match, with Benitez confident that his surging team was catching an unfocused Arsenal side at the perfect time to take points, and they made no mistake in playing out the 2-1 victory on their home patch. It was an inspired performance by Newcastle, and they deserve much of the credit for their win on Sunday, despite the negative self-reflection going on in North London today.
The Blueprint To Be Arsenal Is Now Common Knowledge
Though I know I am not joined by many Gooners today who share my sentiment, one cannot help but feel a little sorry for Shkodran Mustafi. There is no denying the German works hard, and that he cares about his team’s performance. However, that may just be the problem sometimes, as he seems to decide he must take aggressive action at perplexing moments, while being curiously passive in others. It is not his physical traits that anyone questions- he can run, jump, pass and throw his body in front of shots well enough to be a real asset- but rather his mental makeup. He is all at once the vocal leader the team has lacked for years at the back but the last person most fans want to see barking out orders. On Sunday, it was also he who was blamed for the beautiful first Newcastle goal to the endless frustration of some fans. However, is Mustafi actually a victim of a fatal flaw in the team tactics that opponents have learned to exploit?
Teams have figured out the best way to exploit the Arsenal defence is to sit back without the ball and allow them to send numbers forward, overloading the spaces in an attempt to break down a tight block. With a deep back line and a collapsing, compact midfield to block the Gunners’ combination play, it forces them to use the defence to pass around the back, taking a high line and squeezing it even further forward. If the team is patient and waits for an opportunity to recover possession, a route 1 long ball to a pacey striker puts instant pressure on the Arsenal defenders beating a hasty retreat, and allows the other team to spring the instant counter attack. Since the Gunners are so reliant on their fullbacks for width, those players are often in a chasing position from the off, leaving midfielders like Granit Xhaka or Mohammed Elneny to filter back into a defensive position. As teams have found, this is where Arsenal is most vulnerable, and it is one of the biggest reasons Newcastle was able to seal the victory against the more talented Gunners.
It Just Had To Be El Cholo y Atleti…
Because of course it did. As Gooners found out this week following their escape from Moscow and the Europa League quarterfinals, Arsenal will be facing the mighty Atletico Madrid in the semifinals, a real blow to those hoping for an easier opponent in this round. A Diego Simeone team is difficult to beat under ideal circumstances, but over 2 legs the task will be monumental. Arsenal have faced few if any teams so cohesive and willing to run their legs to the bone at their manager’s bidding. Atleti have a blend of skill, pace and graft that few clubs in the world can hold a candle to. They will be swarming and relentless at home in front of the frenzied crowd at the Wanda Metropolitano and organised and disciplined at the Emirates Stadium.
Atletico Madrid are not just a great side, but they also have plenty of experience dealing with the type of football Arsenal like to play, dealing with years of prime Barcelona playing peak level tiki-taka. The 2 legged showdown promises to be the highlight of the competition to date, and it could not involve two managers of such diametrically opposed philosophies. “El Cholo” favours a straight 4-4-2 with a mix of high pressing and low block solidity, as well as the ability to seamlessly shift between both extremes. They are focused on performing their team duties first and foremost, and one gets the impression a clean sheet is first on Simeone’s list of priorities for each match.
His style is one that many Arsenal supporters crave after the looser, more avante garde style of football on offer at the Emirates. Arsene Wenger’s philosophy of beautiful football and individual expressionism will meet its ultimate challenge of the season in the most important fixture on the Gunners’ schedule. A win over 2 legs will put Arsenal in a European final for the first time in over a decade and almost guarantee a lesser opponent in the final, but the challenge in front of Wenger and his team in the form of Atletico Madrid is monumental to say the least.