Instead of a match report today this is a player report.
Most of us, I’m sure, were able to watch the game live (in the UK it was on the free BBC1 channel) so you don’t need a blow by blow account of what happened.
The bottom line is we started the defence of our trophy successfully, beating Newcastle United with two goals in extra time. The performance was not amazing, but nor was it in the same bracket as those sterile efforts we saw during our long winless and goal-less streak earlier this season. In this game we created many chances during the 90 minutes but could not finish any of them.
But the performance will have been incredibly useful for Mikel Arteta in shaping the direction of his first team for the rest of the season.
Let’s go through all the players who featured and see what their displays tell us about where they should fit in those plans (I have also added a rating for good measure):
Newcastle have struggled to create goalscoring opportunities this year and yesterday was no different, but in the 90th minute the big German was called on to pull off a simply brilliant double stop to maintain our presence in the FA Cup. I was among those questioning whether we had kept the right stopper when Martinez left, but a string of excellent displays from Leno have settled that argument. He has even started catching crosses instead of punching everything. Rating: 7.5 – Automatic Starter.
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. Rating: 6.5 – Solid Back-Up To Hector.
Back from illness, Luiz had a decent game. There were few mistakes (and no major ones) and some of his long passing was very good and varies our game nicely. He also competed well physically with that lump of Northumbrian granite that is Andy Carroll. Rating: 7 – In the Conversation as a Starting Centre Back.
He has been very good during this recent run but I thought he looked unusually hesitant in the first half against Newcastle. However, from the break onwards he slotted back into his steady, competitive routine. Played some nice passes but also had a few misplaced ones (mostly in that first half). Rating: 7 – In the Conversation as a Starting Centre Back (which is a nice surprise).
Easily the best of the starters. Another outstanding game from Tesco. His speed of thought and action is phenomenal, as are his commitment, energy and drive. He terrorised Newcastle down their right flank and put in killer cross after killer cross. If we’d had Giroud in the team the Frenchman would probably have scored a hat trick courtesy of KT. We’ve come to expect so much from the young Scot that I remember being genuinely surprised when he looked a bit knackered towards the end of extra time (although not so knackered that he couldn’t put in another stunning run and cross for Aubameyang’s goal). Rating: 9 MoTM – Automatic Starter and Future Captain.
Mo played an important link role between the centre backs (and Leno) and the more advanced areas. He was also tasked with guarding the back door. As we have seen consistently from him this season, he did his job well and unfussily. He’s never going to set the world alight, but he does a job. Rating: 7 – Solid Squad Player.
I so wanted Joe to have a great game, but it was not to be. I cannot fault his industry (he was heavily involved the entire time he was on the pitch) and he almost scored with a decent downward header. But… I was watching him closely and I have to confess to being worried whether he has what it takes to play at the highest level (where Arsenal aspire to be). His touch is often poor, he plays as one-footedly as most of the blokes on Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning and he does not seem to see the game as quickly and decisively as some of our other youngsters. I hope I’m wrong and that this was just a poor outing, but those failings I just mentioned seem more fundamental than form-related, although perhaps they can be put down to nerves, or trying too hard (who knows?). Rating: 5 – Hard to See a Big Future at Arsenal for Him.
If we were to put aside the price tag and pretend we got him in from the French League for 10 million, what would we think about Pepe? Against the Barcodes he was busy, had attempts on goal, made dribbles and linked up well with teammates. All in all an OK outing. The trouble is it’s impossible not to make the comparison with another player who also plays in the wide right role: Saka. By that standard Pepe is not incisive or decisive enough to merit automatic starter status. Rating: 6.5 – Impact Player off the Bench.
I’ve been highly critical of the Brazilian since he joined Arsenal and I’m far from alone. He was another player to whom I paid special attention last night. I see some commentators are slaughtering him for his performance (I read Arseblog’s ratings and he gave Willian a 3). But I have no doubt that some of this is the result of expectation bias (we expect Willian to be rubbish and therefore we see everything he does as rubbish). In fact he was better last night than he was during our terrible run. If his performance against Newcastle was a 3, then some of those earlier performances (where he seemed uninterested and made zero effort) should have been rated at -3 (but weren’t). He actually linked up well at times, made himself available more and was generally tidy. Having said all that, he certainly did not do enough to change anyone’s mind about where he fits in the team. Rating: 6 – Could be an OK Bench Player (but £192k per week is a lot to pay for that role).
Reiss has had some good outings in cup competitions before, but appears to have been a long way out of the manager’s thinking recently. However, an injury to poor Martinelli during the warm-up gave him the opportunity to give the boss a problem last night. And young Reiss seized it with both hands… then fumbled it, juggled it and left it lying shattered on the floor. He had a really good run and attempt on goal in the opening minutes but, after that, struggled to make any impact at all. It didn’t happen and his touch was really poor (if it had been better he might well have scored during the first half when put through into the penalty area). I’m sad to say that, like Willock, there seems to be a fundamental quality gap. Rating: 5 – Hard to See a Future at Arsenal for Him
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang
The captain finally ended his goal drought in extra time with a tap in from Tierney, but he had other chances earlier that went begging (sometimes through poor finishing, sometimes from good defending or goalkeeping). My view is that the central striker role does not suit Auba. He just does not do the link-up stuff as well as Lacazette. Nevertheless, he worked hard and did indeed get into goalscoring positions throughout the game. Hopefully now he’s ended the drought the goals will start flowing. Rating: 6.5 – Should Compete With Martinelli for the Wide Left Attacking Role
Emile Smith Rowe
Replaced Nelson on 57″ and we immediately went up a gear. However, it took ESR a little while to get into the pace of the game and there were a few wayward passes and errors along the way (but then, even Baby Jesus probably had a snotty nose once in a while). However, his movement and decisiveness immediately made us look more threatening and he got more dangerous as the game went on. I love players who seem to know what to do before they have even received the ball (contrast that with someone like Willock, who has to receive the ball and then consider his options: at the highest level that split second makes all the difference). Smith Rowe is one of those players. In the end it was Emile who broke the deadlock, finishing off a lovely move involving Saka and Lacazette. That trio is developing a really exciting sense of synergy. Rating: 7.5 – Automatic Starter But With Regular Rest Games
Xhaka came on in the 66th minute for Willock and immediately started playing with a crispness that reflected badly on Willock’s efforts. Our Swiss midfielder is a hard one to work out. Sometimes he looks terrible and seems to have nothing in his locker except slow movement, backwards and sideways passing and that infuriating toddler tumble to try and win free kicks. At other times he looks pure class, and this cameo appearance was in the latter category. He is much, much better when not tasked with being the main defensive midfielder, which means he works well when Elneny is behind him. In his 54 or so minutes last night he barely put a foot wrong: he sped up our movement, his passing was incisive (and progressive!) and he was at the centre of much that we did. He nearly scored with a terrific volley. On this form he is an asset. Rating: 7.5 – In the Conversation as a Starting Central Midfielder.
Got the same amount of minutes as Xhaka, having come on for Willian. As we have come to expect, he was heavily involved in our forward movement and picked up where he left off in recent games. He is brave and decisive and, like Smith Rowe, understands the “go” bit of “give and go” (Willian please take note). Inevitably he was part of the move that opened the scoring. A huge prospect as a player. Rating: 7.5 – Automatic Starter Barring Rest Games
If you are offended by some of the more forthright views above, feel free to take issue with them in the comments. It gives me no pleasure to write off a young player’s future career at Arsenal and nothing would make me happier than to be proved wrong.
I can think of other young players who were deemed ‘not good enough’ but came through in time to be significant players for us (Alex Song springs to mind: he was booed off by Arsenal’s travelling fans after his debut away at Fulham).
And of course everything above is just one man’s opinion: if yours is different, it’s just as valid. Please share it.