Our visits to the Sports Direct stadium (or whatever name Big Mike’s fancied over the past few years) have usually been very fruitful. That proved to be the case again today as the Gunners managed to carve out another successive win away.
Rafael Benitez has masterfully handled the immense task that lays in front of him at Newcastle – while working under a rather un-supportive, financially stingy owner and a highly vocal, polarized fan base (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Many folks noted that the Spaniard should’ve won the Manager of the Year award for his outstanding top half League finish – given his rather meagre squad outlay. The former Valencia, Liverpool & Chelsea boss has won titles aplenty in his chequered career but it would not be an exaggeration to say his stint at Newcastle United is perhaps his most challenging gig.
Rafa’s always been a sound tactician who has churned out results against far superior teams using his acumen rather than bountiful, talented squads.He tweaked his team again to field a 4 4 1 1 formation, a change from the 5 4 1 fielded last time around, away at The Etihad. That game ended in a 2:1 loss to Manchester City. And while the Magpies were off to a promising start against the North Londoners, the result was ultimately the same scoreline.
Today he was up against yet another tactician, Unai Emery – who has quietly improved the way the Gunners play. He named an unchanged side, the same starting eleven who last beat Cardiff City away 3:2. Fans were left scratching their heads as fan favourite Lucas Torreira was on the bench yet again as Emery persisted with the Guendouzi+Xhaka midfield partnership in the middle of the park – an injury he picked up on last week’s international duty could’ve been the reason for the precaution, however. Mesut Ozil was handed a start to mark his 200th appearance for the Gunners while Aaron Ramsey started yet another game, despite still not resolving his contract situation.
In the opening exchanges the home side definitely looked sharper – goaded on by a passionate Toon army of fans. Skipper Petr Cech was forced to make some crucial saves while Sokratis remains a calming presence in the heart of defense. Mustafi was a bit erratic as usual while Bellerin & Monreal weren’t as effective as expected. Ramsey missed a great opportunity in the first half and while Lacazette was delightful in setting up his team mates and linking with Aubameyang, the lack of a clear end product meant the first half was a largely cagey, listless affair that ended with honours even.
But showing his characteristic dynamism, Emery introduced Lucas Torreira for Guendouzi at the half time mark & that clearly sparked off an inspired performance from the Gunners. The Uruguayan’s tidy distribution & clean tackling meant Arsenal had more of the ball than in the first 45 minutes and thus could focus on attacking Dubravka’s goal with greater urgency. First off, a risky tackle on an Aubameyang set up a free kick which was beautifully converted by Granit Xhaka. That the Swiss captain’s game blossoms exponentially when he’s paired alongside Torreira is no secret – perhaps it was this surge of confidence that led to a masterful free kick scored in the top right corner. A breathless few moments later, some good work by Lacazette resulted in a scramble at the goal mouth – this time Mesut Ozil coolly slotted the ball past a flailing Dubravka to double the lead in under 10 mins.
Calmly boosted, Arsenal went about to see off the game without too many adventurous forays – quickly taking off Aubameyang for Mkhitaryan and eventually a listless Ramsey for the energetic Danny Welbeck. In the end, Arsenal seemed to lose focus – and were duly punished by a Ciaran Clark goal. Mustafi had yet another half of slips & misses while Mkhitaryan had a chance to score Arsenal’s third by an impressive block by Paul Dummett. This wastefulness & lack of sharpness in the end will perhaps cost Arsenal a few points in the League but the 2 goals scored were sufficient to earn three more away points today. Lacazette, Xhaka and Sokratis were perhaps contenders for Arsenal’s Man Of The Match.
Arsenal next play at home in the Europa League and will mind that such lapses in attention will be punished by superior opposition. That being said, Arsenal have managed a rather respectable tally of 3 wins in 3 games in the League – a far cry from the 2 successive losses in the opening games. There is a queit optimism in the air around the Gunners. It seems Emery wants to invite teams to attack in the first half and expects the Guendouzi Xhaka midfield to soak in the pressure – and subsequently introduces Torreira to shut down the game & run down tired opposition as the Uruguayan steals the ball and diligently turn possession.
A win midweek against FC Vorskla will give Arsenal some breathing space before yet another formidable away trip to Everton.