While Arsenal came into this match desperate for three points, Newcastle needed to break the narrative surrounding a team that looks geared for relegation than safety. Dropping seven of their last eight matches, while scoring only six goals during that span, made Newcastle heavy underdogs against an Arsenal side that have played their best matches at the Emirates. Arsenal had to rely on the majestic brilliance of Mesut Ozil, who scored a volley from the heavens, to scrap a 1-0 win. That Arsenal is still struggling for fluency is troubling, considering that it is nearly Christmas. For now, though, Arsenal remain only one point away from the Champions League place that Wenger desperately wants.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech // Maitland-Niles – Monreal – Koscielny – Bellerin // Xhaka – Wilshere // Sanchez (Coquelin, 89’) – Ozil – Iwobi (Welbeck, 72’) // Lacazette (Giroud, 72’)
Newcastle (4-2-3-1): Elliot // Manquillo – Lejeune – Lascelles – Yedlin // Merino (Diame, 82’) – Hayden // Murphy (Gayle, 67’) – Perez – Atsu (Ritchie, 54’) // Joselu
Arsenal’s Right-Side Dominance
Newcastle started the match adopting the same defensive model that has caused Arsenal trouble this season. Benitez set up his team in a compact 4-4-2 with Joselu joined by Ayoze Perez, giving Newcastle access to Arsenal’s first line and prevent them from building up. They did not adopt a robust pressing strategy, however, preferring instead to zonal press when Arsenal attempted to access the central area. Iwobi and Wilshere tried to get a foothold in the match by positioning themselves in the adjoining half-spaces. These vertical movements caused confusion among Newcastle defenders, attracting multiple defenders and leaving marked teammates free.
While Newcastle’s compactness made traditional central movement difficult, Arsenal avoided much of their recent attacking difficulties by leveraging half-space occupation to quickly progress the ball down the flank. Ozil proved dangerous in these situations as his intelligence on the ball allowed him to effectively read concurrent blind-side movements. Bellerin and Iwobi likewise utilized positional rotation between the two to create defensive instability on the right side. Manquillo struggled with these double movements as he tended to prioritize the ball, leaving space on the right flank uncovered. Arsenal only needed better crossing from the flanks and should have expected more, especially from Bellerin. Too often he delayed his cross after the first-touch, giving the Newcastle defense enough time to readjust their positioning. This level of hesitancy in Arsenal’s attacking play is stifling and greater fluidity in the final third needs to be injected back on this side.
Lacazette, the Frustrated Frenchman
The last thing an Arsenal fan wants to see is your club-record signing, after being substituted for what feels like the millionth time, throwing his gloves in frustration. Part of his irritation no doubt comes from failing to complete 90 minutes. More likely, I believe, is that there is a real struggle to build the same cognitive cohesion that he had at Olympique Lyonnais. There is always a level of adaptation when it comes to new signings and Lacazette is no different, yet the issues feel more due to the way Arsenal prefer their possessional play in the final third than his own shortcomings.
Lacazette has a personal preference to adopt a position on the shoulder of either center back, depending on the location of the ball. He’ll leverage this strong attacking position to vary his initial movement. Sometimes, he’ll drop deep to escape his marks and provide greater central penetration against low blocks. His use of wall passes and layoffs to open space for 3rd man runs is no different than the way Wenger utilizes Giroud. Other times, Lacazette will make clever diagonal runs across the body of the defender towards the wide areas. This type of movement – from a central position to the flanks – has proven to be successful in stretching compact defenses as Guardiola has shown at Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
For Lacazette, however, these clever off-ball movements are rarely met with an adjoining pass. His annoyance has been noticeable for several weeks, with the Frenchman throwing his hands in despair as run after run is missed. To his credit, that type of vertical movement is noticeably lacking in Arsenal’s initial buildup so that he is attempting them is a good sign. Why aren’t Arsenal’s midfielders making these passes? I’m not entirely sure. It may be due to the fact that Wenger has never deployed that type of progression for long stretches, instead preferring short passing networks and dynamic close-ball movement. Opening up Arsenal’s attacking play to include these types of passes could prove fruitful when Ramsey comes back to the first-team as his deep runs would find more central space during attacking transitions. For now, he will cut a frustrated figure as long as Arsenal’s ball circulation remains predictable.
78 – 90’: The (Not So) Great Arsenal Defense
Defensive issues reared their ugly head again as Arsenal barely weathered a Newcastle storm towards the end of the game. That the same issues plague this team is a strong point that Wenger has neglected this side of the game for some time. Arsenal should not aim to be a world-class defense, which would be difficult anyway considering their current starting point. Becoming a competent defense seems reasonable and justly possible, yet unlikely in this current regime.
Many of Arsenal’s issues could be solved with greater team compactness during their defensive transition. Little emphasis is placed on deploying a coherent structure as to create solid connections between defenders, useful both for cutting passing angles and building a solid foundation for counterattacking situations. For Arsenal, though, the vertical and lateral distance between the defense and midfield remains too spread out, ceding spatial control in some of the most dangerous areas of the pitch, i.e. the central space outside the 18-yard box. Teams realize how much Arsenal struggle in transition and look to capitalize on it. Newcastle tried with thorny direct passes that led to easy second ball possession. If Newcastle were Liverpool, they may have beaten Arsenal. Liverpool is not mentioned here flippantly. They are our next opponent. Wenger should be careful that the next result does not mirror recent Liverpool matches but if the defense plays like it is now, it could get much worse.