Pepe, Saka, Laca score as AFC beats Saints

January 26, 2021
Southampton 1-3 Arsenal: Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette  on target as Gunners win - Eurosport

Our unbeaten streak in the EPL has been extended to 6 with a good win against the Saints!

A pleasant football match with both teams trying to create chances early on. We should have been up in the first minute but Laca missed a glorious opportunity. That lost opportunity proved costly as the Saints scored right away on a corner where their player is left unmarked in the middle of our surface area…But Pepe who was given a start on the left wing as Auba was missing restored parity with a well taken goal from a good assist from Xhaka. Fast forward and Laca atones for his miss with a glorious assist to Saka who rounded the keeper to finish in the empty net. But Saka is a kind player and after receiving a beautiful diagonal pass from Cedric, he first times a cross in front of goal for Lacazette. From then on, Saints tried to push and Luiz almost handed them a goal but Holding and Leno saved him the blushes. Another good save from Leno and the game was over.

Overall, we played well going forward and we were good enough at the back although we could have defended better. Our game management is improving for sure. Leno, Holding, Partey, Xhaka, Saka and Laca are in good form and Cedric had a great game at LB while Pepe showed some quality and had a decent game overall, scoring a vital goal. Arteta knows his set-up and is definitely close to having his starting XI.

Leno – 7. A solid performance.

Bellerin – 6. Still seems like our weak link

Holding – 7. Another solid outing

Luiz – 6.5. Not a bad performance but was the weaker CB and almost gave a goal away.

Cedric – 7.5. A very good game at LB. Impressive diagonal long passes and did the job defensively.

Partey – 6.5. Started brightly and then faded before going out in the second half. When he will be fully fit, he will be our heart and lung in midfield.

Xhaka – 7.5. Another assist and a tidy game. A bit slow at times but clearly a good spell for him.

Saka – 8. An assist, a goal and constantly creating chances. MOTM

ESR – 7. Industrious but went out injured.

Pepe – 7. A well taken goal and a positive attitude overall. A good showing but could have done better in some instances. Was this game the turning point of his AFC career?

Laca – 7.5. An assist, a goal and his usual drive, shame he missed his opening chance.


Back to Winning Ways: Southampton Prematch & Predicted Line-up

January 26, 2021
Back to make martyrs of the Saints

We had a disappointing performance on the south coast on Saturday that got the result it deserved in the FA Cup. Tonight I expect to see a stronger Arsenal team take all three points in the Premier League match-up.

Saints fielded as close as they could get to a full strength side against us at the weekend whereas many of our best players were rested, which should help tip the balance in our favour.

I expect to see Smith Rowe, Tierney, Saka, Lacazette and Partey recalled to the starting line-up. It’s not clear at the time of writing what the issue with Aubameyang is and whether he’s available, but if not we will likely start Martinelli again as the left sided attacker.

We saw on Saturday how effective Saints are with the high press and we will face it again tonight and need to do better. Through a combination of Southampton’s efforts and the inability of Xhaka and Elneny to dominate the midfield, we were constantly under pressure when trying to play out from the back.

In fairness our central midfielders were not helped by the ineffectiveness of Willian and Nketiah as our ‘out balls’ in that match (we lost possession every time the ball went to either of them) and Martinelli also struggled to make an impression.

It also didn’t help that we had a right-footed player at left back and that on his return to action after several weeks’ lay-off Gabriel was showing more rust than Del and Rodney’s Reliant Robin.

We will face the same challenge tonight but we will handle it better with Tierney restored and, probably, with Luiz back into central defence alongside Holding. I know that Gabriel is our best long-term prospect at CB, but there’s no need to rush him back after his absence with two full games in four days. And in any case, Luiz may be better suited to handling the Saints press.

The sacking of Frank Lampard showed how few chances you get to succeed in the Premier League. Chelsea are two points ahead of us and still in the FA Cup, but that did not stop Abramovich pulling the plug and switching off the Lamp. If we had an owner like that then Arteta would probably have been out on his ear after our bad run earlier this season.

However, I’m glad that didn’t happen. If a manager is going to become really successful, he needs the chance to make mistakes and fail (temporarily) so he can learn how to react when facing future challenges. It’s a cliche, but you often learn more from defeat than from victory – you just have to not make it too much of a habit.

When Arteta, Lampard and Solskjaer were being written up as the three young guns of EPL management I remember writing that El Patron would outlast the other two in his job. Well, Lamps is out. Ole is riding high at the moment but let’s wait and see. If he is manager at Manchester United at the start of next season I will be very surprised.

Here’s the team I think we’ll see tonight, with Aubameyang in ahead of Martinelli if he’s available and with Cedric preferred to Hector (just a hunch):

Leno

Cedric – Holding – Luiz – Tierney

Xhaka – Partey

Saka – Smith Rowe – Martinelli

Lacazette

That 11 is good enough to win and I expect them to do so.

Come on You Gunners.

RockyLives


Make Some Flipping Money!

January 25, 2021
Damned if we spend, damned if we don’t

We are living in unprecedented times, that much is true, but even I did not know just how much the equilibrium had been knocked out of balance when I read the headlines and distress in some quarters that Arsenal have allowed £160m of talent out the door without recouping a single penny.

I am somewhat surprised.

In the preceding decade the criticism was from the opposite end of the spectrum, and the club’s Board and management were implored to ‘Spend Some F’ing Money’ by all and sundry.

They did, maybe not wisely but they followed the demands to stop taking gambles on young players and start instead to pay big money for established experienced players.

This very rarely ends in anything other than the club taking a loss when the club parts ways with those players bought at 25-28 years old, so why on earth are people getting so upset?

Like anything else in public debate you have the reasoned observer and the lunatics. Last night I read that QAnon supporters and followers were left bereft, dejected and even grieving that what they believed would happen (Trump launching National Guard/Military/Police to mass arrest everyone at Biden’s inauguration in the ultimate arrest of Deep State participants… I kid you not), didn’t happen.

Now I am not putting the ‘SSFM’ brigade in the same boat but it does feel that they have had their beliefs dragged from under them in the same way: they were convinced by media pundits, fellow fans and influencers that the money spent would turn us into some unstoppable force, every million spent was cheered – the bigger the better, we are putting together a title challenge etc etc.

As those dreams faded and died (to borrow a line from those over in the east end of London) they are forced to reflect, some insist that the only way to rebuild will be to spend big again, others have turned their ire at mismanaged contracts and players departing for nothing.

Ignore the noise, we have seen in the last few weeks what is possible placing a bit of trust in the players from the academy and adding one or two competent individuals. I dare say we have a few more financial losses to come. Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe will surely all see a loss when they eventually depart, but are we really going to be churlish and say the club should never have bought Aubameyang when the time comes that he leaves on a free?

Gooner in Exile


Saints & Sinners: Southampton Report & Ratings

January 24, 2021
Houston, we have a problem

You have to admit, we are a classy club.

Yes, the FA Cup is our trophy. We own it. It should be called the AFC Cup and its permanent home is on a plinth in a cabinet in N5. But we’re so nice that on certain occasions we consent to lend it out to others. Yesterday was one of those occasions. We have generously bowed out of the 2021-22 tournament to give someone else a chance.

It must have been our intention, right? We put in such a poor and disjointed performance at St Mary’s that it’s the only explanation.

Either way, a very committed Saints side emerged as 1-0 victors. There was an element of luck about their goal, but even the most biased of Arsenal fans would surely admit they deserved their win.

For Mikel Arteta, the game will have reinforced some conclusions that he already seems to have reached: namely that Willian and Pepe are just not doing enough to be considered starters for an important game and that our best team is one that includes the names Saka, Smith Rowe, Tierney and Partey.

El Patron made seven changes from our last league game, resting Smith Rowe (not even on the bench), Lacazette and Tierney and giving starts to Willian, Pepe, Elneny, Cedric, Martinelli, Gabriel and Nketiah. Aubameyang pulled out on the day of the game because of a family issue.

Right from the kick-off it was clear Southampton were going to press us with real commitment and organisation. Our playing out from the back has been good recently, but it wasn’t in this one – which is not entirely surprising when you consider we had a right-footed left back and a rusty Gabriel making his first start since contracting Covid 19.

The Saints press meant we were unable to play through midfield and when we did get down the flanks we were unable to make anything happen. Cedric and Martinelli were not on the same wavelength and other communication issues cropped up elsewhere.

Players who have been reliable for several weeks started making mistakes (Rob Holding in particular) and at times we played like a bunch of blokes who’d never set eyes on each other before until they’d met in the pub car park half an hour earlier.

I really wanted Willian and Pepe to shine. We need them to show some decent form between now and the end of the season. But they were really poor. Pepe was invisible for most of the first half and Willian seemed to make a speciality of ignoring forward passes that were clearly on, taking too many touches, then passing backwards (on the occasions when he didn’t just lose possession).

Pepe was a bit better towards the end and set up a couple of chances for Nketiah. He possibly still has something to offer and maybe could become more influential with a run of games, but as for a use for Willian… I just don’t know. Do the cleaning staff at the Emirates need a new duster?

The Southampton goal came from a low shot which went through Cedric’s legs and looked to be covered by Leno until a deflection from Gabriel took it past him. The German had earlier made an excellent low stop but there was nothing he could do about this one.

At the other end Martinelli got through for a one-on-one with the Saints ‘keeper but fluffed his shot (admittedly a difficult technique – trying to volley a ball coming over the shoulder from behind). The Brazilian was energetic as usual but failed to make much of an impact on the game.

The second half saw more of the same until the final 20 minutes when Southampton started to tire (and also began to instinctively protect their lead) and our substitutes added a bit more intelligence and intensity to our play.

Partey and Saka came on just before the hour mark for Martinelli and Elneny. I can only imagine the club are still being careful with Martinelli’s minutes otherwise surely it would have been one of Pepe or Willian coming off (or even Nketiah).

Partey and Saka immediately made a difference and we started to threaten the opposition goal at last. A Saka cross almost found the head of Lacazette (who’d come on for Bellerin on 71 minutes) and Nketiah had a couple of chances including one really good one in the dying moments that he snatched at and skied over the bar.

The whistle ended a disappointing day for us in Hampshire. Arteta blamed the defeat on poor finishing in the second half, but the truth is we were second best overall.

We return to St Mary’s on Tuesday and some observers seem to think this win gives Southampton a psychological advantage over us for the league game but I’m not buying that. With our first team regulars restored it will be a totally different kettle of fish and I expect us to take all the points.

Player Ratings

Leno – 7

The only starter to really come out of the game with any credit.

Bellerin – 5

An indifferent performance.

Holding – 5.5

Usually so dependable, Big Rob misplaced too many passes in this one, although still performed his defensive duties well. He had one half chance to score and took his shot with all the finesse of a true centre half.

Gabriel – 5

A shaky, rusty performance from the returning CB. We know how good he is from his performances earlier in the season, but on this evidence it’s going to take him a while to get back to his best.

Cedric – 5

Some good intent from Ced with decent attacking forays but his crossing was terrible (admittedly he was on the wrong side of the park, but even when he cut onto his right those crosses were hit with a driver when a nine-iron was called for).

Xhaka – 5

What he did on the ball was fine, but what he didn’t do was get enough of a grip in midfield, so we were forced to play wide or punt long balls forward.

Elneny – 5

Same as Xhaka.

Willian – 3

He can’t want to play this badly, so what’s wrong with him? A truly terrible outing. We would have been better with 10 men and no Willian. And I mean that seriously, not as a joke. At least we would have lost possession less frequently.

Pepe – 4

He had some “moments” in the second half as Saints sat back. His footwork was good at times but he flatters to deceive. He was invisible for large parts of this game and is not a difference-maker.

Martinelli – 5

Willing as ever, but nothing much came off for him.

Nketiah – 4.5

Eddie was not involved enough in the first half (not all his fault but he could have done more) and when he did get a couple of decent chances he fluffed his lines.

Subs

Partey – 7

He immediately improved us for the better, helped take charge of midfield and got us moving forward at long last.

Saka – 7

His half hour or so had the main benefit of highlighting why Pepe and Willian should be kept away from the first team. Dynamic running, slick passing and intelligent all-round play.

Lacazette – 6

Not on long enough to have much of an impact.

RockyLives


Arteta’s Dilemma: Rotation, Rotation, Rotation – Southampton FA Cup Pre-Match and Predicted 11

January 23, 2021
Matt Ryan – will he turn out to be a keeper?

It’s back to FA Cup action today as we play Saints away in the early kick-off (12.15pm).

The irony with a game like this is that just as Mikel Arteta has got the closest to knowing his first choice 11 since taking over from Unai Emery, today is not a day to play them all.

Not that El Patron won’t want to win. As you know, my view is they should rename the trophy the AFC Cup because it’s OURS, and Arteta has won it as both a player and a manager at Arsenal. He will be desperate to triumph today.

But our league campaign is also vital and we are due to play the same opposition in the EPL on Tuesday night, so there will need to be rotation for today’s game.

Southampton are a decent team and we have struggled on recent trips to their ground on the south coast, so I fully expect this to be a close one.

The main team news is that we have signed a new back-up ‘keeper from Brighton – Matt Ryan, an Aussie who has supported Arsenal since he was a young lad and says he used to get up at 4am to watch our games. I have no idea how good he is but if he starts or is on the bench today it probably means bad news for Alex Runarrson.

I feel some sympathy for Runarrson. He had one game and made a couple of howlers, but football is a brutal sport at the top level.

You would expect our back-up goalie to get a run out in a cup game, but this may be just a bit too soon for Ryan so I expect to see Leno between the sticks.

There are strong rumours that Norwegian playmaker Martin Odegaard will be arriving on loan from Real Madrid. I don’t follow much European football so I can’t tell you much about him except that my son is very excited and describes him as “Ozil with extra work effort.”

Injury wise, Mari won’t be available but is due back in training next week and Dani Ceballos is being assessed before today’s game but is probably available.

With rotation in mind, here’s my predicted starting line-up.

Leno

Cedric – Holding – Gabriel – Tierney

Elneny – Ceballos

Willock

Pepe – Lacazette – Aubameyang

Let’s win in the normal 90 and power on to the Fifth Round.

Come on You Gunners.

RockyLives


The Most Underrated Player at Arsenal

January 22, 2021
Most underrated?

Yesterday’s excellent Post by RC about how Sylvain Wiltord may have been under-appreciated during his time at Arsenal set me to thinking: who is the ‘Wiltord’ in the current squad?

Who is our most under-appreciated player right now?

We can rule out Smith Rowe, Saka, Leno, Martinelli, Gabriel, Partey and Tierney because the love-in surrounding that group of talented stars would make a harlot blush.

Holding is not quite at that level of acclaim but also seems to have earned the respect of fans this season and has cemented his first team place.

Likewise, despite poor recent form, I would not include Aubameyang because during his time at Arsenal he has been greatly appreciated and ‘rated’.

And for the purposes of this Post I am ruling out Willian because I am talking about players who are underrated in terms of what they have achieved at (and contribute to) Arsenal, not what they have done elsewhere in their careers. As for Mari and Cedric, we just haven’t seen enough of them yet in the red and white.

I, perhaps controversially, do not consider Maitland-Niles, Willock, Nelson and Nketiah to be in the conversation (although I would love them to get there in the near future).

So the list of contenders I came up with is: Xhaka, Elneny, Lacazette, Pepe, Luiz and Bellerin. You could include Chambers and Mustafi in that group if that’s your thing, but I’m not.

Now to whittle down that final selection:

Pepe? Clearly he has talent, but (through no fault of his own) he’s saddled with that £72m price tag which raises expectations that he just hasn’t met. He has shown flashes of real ability, but not enough.

Bellerin? I’m not sure you can call Hector underrated during his time at Arsenal and his form in the last couple of seasons (since his serious injury in fact) has been inconsistent. Pass.

Luiz? For all that he infuriates fans with crazy mistakes, he was outstanding in our FA Cup triumph last summer and has been pretty steady this season. A possibility, but he falls somewhere between being not quite good enough to be underrated and not quite bad enough as well. No.

Xhaka? A Marmite player for supporters, but manager after manager has deemed him an important component of their plans. The trouble is I don’t think we can view him as underrated. We know his strengths and weaknesses, what he can and can’t do for the team. Some of us value that contribution, others are fed up with him, but we have his measure. So, it’s a no.

That leaves Elneny and Lacazette and these are my two favourites for the spot of ‘most underrated’.

Elneny because of his un-showy, workmanlike performances, his athleticism and his apparent lack of ego as well as the fact that he seldom loses possession; Laca for being one of those players who – even though he’s no Thierry Henry – contributes important goals and is always prepared to work hard for the team. He has some very poor spells of form, but always seems to come through them.

It’s a toss up, but I’m going for Laca. In fact (as I believe someone said in comments), he is not dissimilar to Sylvain Wiltord and, in the Invincibles team, you could imagine him performing a similar role to Sylvain.

I have watched many games where Laca’s finishing has been off, he has been isolated up front and generally out of sorts, but you never see his head go down and he never stops trying to close down opposition players.

Am I right? Over to you.

RockyLives


Is Sylvain Wiltord underrated?

January 21, 2021
Sylvain Wiltord retires from football | Daily Mail Online

So we have been discussing our up and coming players lately with Tierney, Saka and ESR taking the spotlight. ESR was even compared to Pires…

From the firing French contingency under Wenger at AFC, we hear a lot (and rightly so) about Vieira, Henry, Pires and even Anelka but there is not much mention of Sylvain Wiltord.

With 49 goals in 175 appearances and being a two-times EPL and FA Cup winner, Wiltord was unquestionably part of a fantastic group of players. He wasn’t the fastest, he wasn’t the strongest but he gave his all. He mostly played as a right winger and was used mostly like an “impact bench player” but does the fanbase underrate him?

As a French man, my fondest memory of him is of course his equalizer at the end of regular time in the Euro 2000 final against Italy. As an Arsenal fan, I cannot forget his goal againt Utd which gaves us the title in 2000-2001 and his goal the gollowing year vs Utd in the FA Cup final.

So what is your take on SW?


A Song For Smith Rowe

January 20, 2021
A player on song…

Rumour has it that Emile Smith Rowe is about to sign a new five-year contract extension, which is truly excellent news.

It’s important that we don’t get carried away with how good this young man is and put too much pressure on his young shoulders.

But quite clearly he’s already better than Brady, Bergkamp, Pires, Merson, Fabregas and Ozil.

Only joking. But there’s nothing wrong with having high hopes for the lad.

And if he’s going to be with us for years to come and featuring regularly in our first team he needs a song.

I have a couple of offerings, but they’re both a bit rubbish, so feel free to come up with something better

  1. To the tune of that nursery favourite, Row, Row, Row Your Boat:

Rowe, Rowe, Emile Smith Rowe

First name in our team,

When he scores another goal

Don’t forget to scream.

(Original lyrics)

Row, row, row, your boat

Gently down the stream,

If you see a crocodile

Don’t forget to scream.

2. To the tune of the Christmas song ‘Let It Snow’:

Emile Smith Rowe’s delightful

And his passes so insightful,

If we want to score some goals

Play Smith Rowe, play Smith Rowe, play Smith Rowe.

(Original lyrics)

Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Ok, I’ll get me coat.

RockyLives


Auba’s Back in the House: Newcastle Report & Ratings

January 19, 2021
Captain Happy

There was lots to be encouraged about after last night’s 3-0 home win over an admittedly poor Newcastle United.

Smith Rowe and Saka’s combinations, Cedric’s breakthrough game, a clean sheet, Partey bossing midfield, Smith Rowe’s sublime touch and, of course, our captain getting his mojo back.

Not that Aubameyang’s revival is fully confirmed just yet, but two goals in the second half (including the all-important opener) have set him on the right road. It took time – he was poor in the first half – but his first goal was pure Aubameyang.

Mikel Arteta started with what looked a decent team. Partey returned to play alongside Xhaka; Cedric started at right back (presumably to give Bellerin a break) and Gabriel was obviously not felt to be 100% back to fitness so he was confined to the bench while Luiz started.

The front four seemed full of possibility: Smith Rowe playing behind a front three of Saka, Lacazette and Aubameyang.

So it was somewhat disappointing how the first half played out. We lacked smoothness and struggled to make high quality openings, although Aubameyang managed to hit the post with a chance he would normally have tucked away.

And it was the captain who was drawing my ire in that half. A couple of times he seemed to make half-hearted efforts to get on the end of passes; in addition to the miss mentioned above he also created a chance by cutting into the Newcastle box and trying to curl a low shot into the far corner of the net, but it went several metres wide. In short, nothing was happening for Auba and he looked low on confidence.

Elsewhere there was pleasure to be taken from Emile Smith Rowe’s touch and movement. Here are just a couple of observations from AA readers in the comments after the game:

“I see a hell of a lot of Ozil in his play particularly one/two touch passes and then moving again, he looks for space constantly…” (Gooner in Exile).

ESR reminds me of a combination of two greats, Merson, for his floating running style, and the best first touch player I ever saw, Robert Pires.” (LBG)

High praise indeed. To me he also shows glimpses of Bergkamp at times.

But we must remember how young and inexperienced he is. It would be wrong to expect him to carry the burden of being our sole playmaker for the rest of the season, the “new Ozil” or the “new Bergkamp” or whatever. He will inevitably have a dip in form at some point but, for now, he’s such an exciting prospect.

We went in level at half time, with Newcastle having barely troubled Bernd Leno and a sense that we would need to step it up after the break. Thankfully we did.

Whether it was El Patron’s half time talk, or whether there was any kind of subtle tactical switch (you clever tactics types – help me out here), something changed in the second half. Right from the whistle we were on the front foot and going at the Barcodes in waves.

Five minutes after the restart we got the breakthrough our pressure deserved when Lacazette, having come deep, laid off to Partey who sidestepped an opponent and fired a beautiful long ball over the top for Aubameyang to run on to. If our captain needed an opportunity to kick start his form, this one was tailor made: a foot race, coming in off the left wing, a defender and a goalkeeper to beat… bang! The perfect scenario for him. An emphatic left foot finish put us in front and boy did Auba look happy.

Ten minutes later it was our psychic twosome – Smith Rowe and Saka – combining superbly to put us two up. ESR was released down the left wing and showed brilliant close control as he shimmied round a defender before cutting the ball back into the middle of the penalty area where the late-arriving Saka was there to tuck it home.

By this point the Newcastle heads were so far down they could have juggled them with their feet and there was only going to be one winner.

It was nice, however, that the third goal went to Aubameyang. Cedric and Saka combined well after a Newcastle mistake deep in the Toon left back position. Cedric was freed to get along the goal line from where he cut the ball back to Aubameyang just outside the six yard box for a simple tap in.

Excellent performances from Smith Rowe, Saka, Cedric, Aubameyang, Tierney and Partey give lots of grounds for positivity. At the defensive end Newcastle did not trouble us much but our back line was solid when called on. In particular, as with the recent FA Cup game against the same opposition, Luiz did a good job of containing the giant Andy Carroll and his elbows.

We had 20 attempts on goal including six on target, while restricting Toon to just four attempts, only one of which was on target.

There is a run of tough games coming up in the league, but we have given ourselves a platform from which to build with a degree of confidence.

Player Ratings

Leno – 6

He had little to do but is now such a reassuring figure behind our defence.

Cedric – 8 MoTM

I know many will say Auba should be MoTM, but his performance was inconsistent despite the two goals and he had a poor first half. Cedric, on the other hand, seems to be really settling in to his role. Like many, I had doubts about him but I saw signs of encouragement when he started against Newcastle in the FA Cup (here’s what I said after that game: (“Ced has not convinced me when I have seen him in an Arsenal kit but yesterday he was pretty good. He won tackles, competed hard and mostly passed well…”). Last night he built on that performance to have a really good game at both ends. He was a tiger last night.

Holding – 7

Rock solid Rob was rock solid again.

Luiz – 7

Performed his defensive duties well and didn’t slow us down too much in possession (he mostly laid it off to Xhaka or Partey).

Tierney – 7

Cedric having a good night meant there was less pressure on Tierney to have to drive us forward down the left flank all the time. He was as reliable as ever.

Xhaka – 7

His good run of form continues and he made a very strong contribution last night including some excellent tackling. I don’t want to tempt fate, but the timing of his tackles (and his decision-making around tackling) seem to have got better.

Partey – 7.5

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about the way Thomas plays that just exudes class. Wonderful long ball assist to break the deadlock.

Smith Rowe – 7.5

I can’t add to what I’ve written in the report. A joy to watch (and a lovely post match interview in which he seemed humble, grounded and happy to credit others with his success).

Saka – 7.5

We are spoilt with this young man to the extent that we just expect these sorts of performances now. Excellent.

Aubameyang – 7.5

The first half was a cause for concern but he came roaring back in the second half so fair play to him. If he continues to rediscover his form like this then our attacking options are starting to look sweet.

Lacazette – 7

You always get a tireless shift from Laca and his link-up play was very good.

Subs

Elneny – 6.5

Came on for the excellent Partey when we were two up and did a tidy job.

Willian – 6.5

Replaced the captain on 79 minutes and seemed to link up well with his team mates. Admittedly the game was won, but perhaps the first glimmerings of a return to form?

Martinelli – 6.5

Gabriel got around 10 minutes after coming on for Smith Rowe. Not long enough to really get involved but he showed his usual energy and desire.

RockyLives


Let’s Swipe the Barcodes Again: Newcastle Pre-match & Predicted Line-Up

January 18, 2021

Let’s get this show back on the road

Just over a week ago Newcastle United held us to a goalless draw over 90 minutes in the FA Cup. We managed to beat them in extra time but there’s no extra time in the Premier League so we tonight we have to do better.

The good news is that Tierney and Martinelli are both back in training and are available. That’s particularly pleasing in the case of our Brazilian attacker because his looked like a bad injury when he broke down during the warm-up for the cup game against the Barcodes.

Only Mari remains unavailable because of injury (he is “continuing to rehabilitate” from a calf injury).

It gets boring to keep saying how important each game is, but this one does indeed seem to have some significance.

We ended a truly awful run of form when Mikel Arteta either decided to (or was forced to – take your pick) shake up the team, bring in Emile Smith Rowe and play him in a No 10 role and push Saka out to right wing.

Victories over Chelsea, Brighton and West Brom followed. There was a real sense of momentum. Then we struggled in the cup tie when Arteta brought Willian and Pepe back into the starting line-up. and we huffed and puffed against a well organised Crystal Palace team last week without finding a breakthrough.

Some of the encouragement we felt after West Brom has dissipated a little. We have by no means gone back to the cluelessness of the bad run but there was a lack of smoothness in our play.

To my mind a fairly clear first choice eleven is beginning to come together, but it brings selection problems for El Patron.

Barring injuries and the need to rest players, that team would be Leno – Bellerin – Holding – Gabriel – Tierney – Partey – (Elneny/Xhaka) – Smith Rowe – Saka – Lacazette – Martinelli.

The two obvious problems are: who plays alongside Partey in central midfield? And can we really drop the captain from our first team?

The answer to the first question should be Elneny. He does his job unfussily and has more positional discipline than Xhaka. But then we’d have to drop Xhaka just as he is finally hitting some really good form and I doubt Arteta will do that.

The second question is one which I fear Arteta will not have the courage to address in the way he should. Martinelli should be starting, with Aubameyang as the back-up option.

For tonight’s match I expect the following:

  • Martinelli will not start because of his recent injury but will probably appear off the bench. I wholeheartedly approve of this approach because he is too important to risk aggravating his injury with a full 90.
  • Therefore Auba will get to start and wear the armband.
  • Tierney will start because he’s almost indispensable. We need better back-up for him.
  • Gabriel will be recalled ahead of Luiz.
  • Saka possibly should be rested but won’t be (Arteta talked in recent days about potential burn-out among the squad).
  • Smith Rowe will start (notwithstanding the burn-out fears) because we really need the three points tonight.

We have almost five days before our next match – an FA Cup fixture away at either Southampton or Shrewsbury, when there will be an opportunity to rest some of the over-worked players.

With the right team selection we should be able to overcome Newcastle. They are struggling to score goals (they couldn’t even bag one against bottom placed, winless Sheffield United in their last outing, losing nil-one in the process). We just need more crispness in our decision making in the final third of the pitch.

Predicted Line-Up:

Leno

Bellerin – Holding – Gabriel – Tierney

Xhaka – Partey

Smith Rowe

Saka – Lacazette – Aubameyang

I fancy us to win by a couple. Let’s see.

RockyLives