Four goals, four different scorers, four contenders for Man of the Match… not a bad way to spend a stormy Sunday afternoon.
Since Mikel Arteta took over from Unai Emery we’ve had more draws than a Welsh dresser.
But with our defensive solidity and team organisation gradually improving it always felt like a matter of time before the dam would burst and we gave someone a proper spanking.
Yesterday was that day. The dam was duly breached and poor old Newcastle United (and their likeable manager Steve Bruce) were the spankees.
We started the day level on points with the Barcodes, who were on an eight game unbeaten run, so this was hardly a foregone conclusion.
An extended break in Dubai had given Arteta his first real chance to work properly with the team without the pressure of imminent games. We all wondered whether this exercise would mean changes in the look of the team and El Patron did not let us down.
Misfiring Lacazette was dropped and Eddie Nketieh preferred at centre forward; there was no Torreira or Guendouzi, with Ceballos getting his first start under Arteta; Mustafi got the nod ahead of Sokratis and Saka kept his place at left back despite Kolasinac being available.
With all that preparation time and so many bold selection decisions, it seemed inevitable we’d come out of the blocks like Usain Bolt, right? Wrong.
For half an hour we were mostly terrible: misplaced passes, lack of running off the ball, no control in midfield, no goal threat… it was as if our minds were still on the beach in Dubai.
Newcastle had been busy in the January window and had two debutants eager to make an impression (former Spud Danny Rose, who looked liked he’d eaten too many boxes of Cadbury’s Roses, and Valentino Lazaro). They took the game to us and were getting into dangerous positions at will. Lazaro, in particular, was causing problems for Bellerin.
Only a smart save from Leno (after a shot was diverted by Ceballos’s head) kept us from going behind.
It was painful viewing and the crowd was starting to grumble.
Then, about 30 minutes in, something changed. Feel free to share your opinions of what that something was, but to my mind it was that one key player stepped up and took hold of the game.
That man was Mesut Ozil, a player to whom Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia (a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma) could just as easily apply.
Regardless of Ozil’s skills – and they are silkier than a silkworm in a slinky nightgown – people often say they wish he would “boss” games more. Well, that’s exactly what he did here.
Suddenly he was everywhere in the middle of the park, receiving passes and moving the ball on quickly, finding team mates in great positions and opening up our play. This in turn forced Newcastle onto the back foot and reduced the threat they had been posing.
It was 0-0 at half time but you could see we were getting the upper hand, and the second half continued in the same vein. Xhaka-Ceballos-Ozil had somehow transformed themselves from the Three Stooges of the first half hour into a Holy Trinity that controlled the rest of the game.
The first goal, after 54 minutes, was a fine header from Aubameyang (inexplicably unchallenged in the Toon box) after a simple cross from Pepe. Three minutes later came the best goal of the game: Aubameyang fed Saka down the left wing, the young Londoner bamboozled two defenders with a neat turn and a nutmeg and pulled back a low cross for Pepe. Pepe’s finish was pure class. I know it looked easy, but many players would have blasted it and I loved the fact that Pepe passed it into the corner of the net. That sort of composure and clear thinking in front of goal betokens many more sweet scores to come.
We had one or two scares at 2-0, including a good effort by Saint-Maximin which came back off the inside of the post, but overall we were still in control.
We wrapped it up late on, first with an Ozil tap-in following a wonderful spell of pass-and-move play. Lacazette’s neat turn and pass for the assist was nice, too. Then Laca finally ended his goal drought after nice set-up play by Willock (on as a sub) and Pepe.
After a shaky start it turned out to be an excellent team performance with many stand-out players. I have seen people suggest four different options as Man of the Match – Pepe, Ozil, Saka and Ceballos – which shows how good we were.
Here’s hoping this is the start of a run of wins and a climb up the table. The confidence this performance will bring will certainly do no harm.
Made saves when called on. Didn’t do anything wrong.
Struggled in the first half hour as Newcastle attacked down our right, but settled down thereafter and did well.
What a talent this young man is. Fast, fearless, strong and skilful.
Won everything in the air against a big physical team, used the ball well and opted for Row Z when called for. A very encouraging performance.
Organised and tidy. His reading of the game was first rate.
Frustrating as his silly yellow card was, he played a full part in us taking control of the game after the first 30.
A surprise inclusion in the starting line-up, Dani was excellent throughout and was our best player in the early part of the game when the rest of the team was struggling. He can dribble and can see a pass, but I was also encouraged by his willingness to get stuck in.
Ozil 8.5 MOTM
A Mesut Masterclass. On this kind of form he is absolutely world class. He pulled the strings and Newcastle were tied in knots. His late goal shades him the MOTM honour just ahead of the other contenders.
He was too wide in the first period of play and his touch looked off once or twice. At half time Arteta instructed him to get closer to Nketieh and that saw him become much more involved. He was involved in a lot of our good link-up play (including for Pepe’s goal) and got the scoring started with a well directed header.
OK, I’ll confess I was starting to have some doubts about Pepe, but this performance blew them away. He was a constant threat and took his goal really well. If he can keep this form up we have a real player on our hands.
Little service in the first half hour, but worked hard. Should have got on the scoresheet with a shot that hit the crossbar. It was certainly difficult (the ball was slightly behind him) but he needs to put those types of chances away.
Tidy, but had little to do.
Got his goal. More now please, Laca.
Not much time to make an impression, but he was involved in our final goal.