A win is a win is a win. Am I right?
Arsenal got that win – their fourth in a row – courtesy of a superb Emile Smith-Rowe finish and then a much needed Aubameyang goal in extra time, but whilst we can all agree that was a laboured performance last night, what I think we can all agree on is that it is the results that ultimately matter and we managed to bag another one which will also help the confidence of the team.
And I think – despite the fact it wasn’t a great performance and it took us 120 minutes to get through – you could see the signs that the team has a lot more confidence than it did during the barren spell in November and December last year. In that period we were taking too many touches, not making attempts on goal and you could visibly see the lack in belief in some of those Arsenal players. Last night was a struggle at times but I still felt that we were on top for most of the game and we did indeed create chances. For example, we had 24 attempts at Newcastle United’s goal and nine one target during the game. I think by the end of the 90 it was 19 attempts in total. We had three big chances and 16 shots inside the box, also forcing Dubravka to make seven saves in total. We at least created opportunities and against a team who were sitting compact and deep with five at the back and a low-block midfield four with Carroll as the long ball outlet it was always going to be a bit of a struggle.
These games are. All teams struggle this season against sides who sit deep and compact and want to break you down. We know that. So I guess ultimately the fact we won is the most important thing and we should focus on those positives, which I think I will do, but first we should probably dissect some of the less positive elements of last night. Starting before kick off itself. Poor Gabriel Martinelli. He’s only just got himself back up to full fitness and in the warm up he rolled on his ankle and couldn’t play. He walked off never to return for the evening having been selected, but after the game Mikel said it doesn’t look good. We must all collectively hold our breath now because he’s been brilliant since coming back and to lose him for an extended period of time will be a bitter pill for us all to swallow, let alone the poor lad himself. Desperately unlucky.
His replacement Reiss Nelson had a chance to play and that was something that I was really routing for. When you have a young lad coming through from Hale End with an opportunity to make their mark you are always pleased when they do so. But I thought Reiss struggled all night and the fact he was hauled off on 56 minutes gives you an idea of just why it wasn’t working and I think we probably need to start asking the question as to whether he will make it at Arsenal. He’s shown a couple of positive glimpses in the Europa League, but I’m not seeing it on a regular enough basis – like Pepe who was also hit and miss for most of the evening – so I wonder if we’ll actually ever see him on a consistent enough basis at The Arsenal. It will be a shame but unfortunately they can’t all make it and whilst we see how quickly the likes of some of the other young players are coming through, it is hard not to look at those like Saka, Smith-Rowe and Martinelli and make comparisons.
It is the same with Willock. He started alongside the atrocious Elneny and neither of those midfielders offered anything other than backwards passes and concessions of possession. I thought not a lot went right for Willock all night but I guess it doesn’t help that he was sat alongside the hapless Elneny. That’s where a lot of our struggles came from because we weren’t able to be progressive and build through Newcastle’s lines, because whilst Newcastle did sit in deep at times, they still came out on occasions and it is those occasions that you need to be able to move the ball quickly and also progress it at pace. Our midfield didn’t offer that and it was only in the second half when Smith-Rowe and Xhaka came on that we could see the real difference. I’ll come to Smith-Rowe in a minute but first let’s have a ‘thumbs up’ for Granit Xhaka, who was very good I thought. What I noticed about his play was that he moved the ball quicker than he did during our barren spell last year. He wasn’t taking too many touches; sometimes it was one touch, sometimes it was two or three but they were quicker and it was almost always purposeful and with intent. That is what you want from your midfield and that is why we looked so much better after he came on. He also had a hand in the second goal to secure it in injury time by slotting in Tierney – once again excellent and my man of the match – who played to Auba to tap in.
Boy did Auba need that. You could see it written all over his face and hopefully that gives him the spark he needs. Goals are the drug that strikers need and he’s had his fix. I hope he can now follow that up against Palace.
Let’s also take a moment to wax lyrical on Tierney too, because he was once again imperious. He is getting better and better with every game and last night was a proper threat on Newcastle’s right hand side throughout. He has an extra yard of pace recently I’ve noticed and that confidence is helping him to beat his man. There might be a question mark about potentially giving him enough rest time, but he’s in such good form you just cross your fingers in hope that he doesn’t pick up any knock because he’s playing brilliantly. In a somewhat dark season he has been a shining light and for me right now looks nailed on as player of the year.
I want to also touch on Smith-Rowe but before I do that I do have to talk about Willian briefly, who was deployed as a 10 in the middle and offered us another stinker of a performance to suggest that if anybody came in and offered to take him off our hands for nothing you’d bite their arms off. He hasn’t worked in the wide positions, he hasn’t worked centrally, his passing range is off, he had a good opportunity in the first half following an Aubameyang shot that the ‘keeper saved that he just seemed to take an age to take before blazing it over. As every game passes by this is looking more and more like a nightmare signing and at a time in which we are about to offload one footballing player white elephant in Mesut Ozil, we have another one in Willian. As it stands we’ll have another one for two year’s in him at the end of the season. What a bad deal and our only hope is that he is easier to shift than Ozil, perhaps because of his wages being ONLY a report £220k-per-week…
But let’s not end today’s thoughts on a low, let’s end on a high and to that high is Emile Smith-Rowe – who is growing in every game we see him. Of course as we all know it could have been very different had the ref not overturned his own call to send him off via VAR. We should give props to Chris Kavanagh for changing what on replays was an obvious decision not to send the youngster off. It does make me wonder how much in a quiet stadium referees are influenced by the sound of the players though, because the noise made by the Newcastle player in screeching that loud could be heard by everyone. The fact the player got up and was able to jog it all off suggested to me that he made more of it to try to get Smith-Rowe sent off so I’m pleased – for a change – that VAR intervened and did us a favour. Given that I thought Aubameyang should have had a penalty in the second half and VAR almost instantly dismissed it, shows that at least it worked in one instance last night.
But Smith-Rowe dusted himself off and then continued to show why Willian should be on the scrapheap and we give the keys to the car to the youngster. He popped up in space, moved the ball quickly, topping off another impressive display by getting a very good goal after good work from Lacazette to challenge the Newcastle defender for the ball. I don’t know what it is about goals off the post as well, but they always feel a little more special. What a talent we have in that kid. And he’s bang on form at the moment.
Right, that’s enough from me today. Lots of talking points and quite a long read, so I’ll let you get on with your day. Up the Arsenal.