Much Was Revealed About Arsenal’s Squad: Newcastle Report & Ratings

If Mikel needed food for thought, yesterday’s game was a banquet

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):

Bernd Leno

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: 7.5Automatic Starter.

Cedric Soares

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.

David Luiz

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.

Pablo Mari

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).

Kieran Tierney

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.

Mohammad Elneny

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.

Joe Willock

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.

Nicolas Pepe

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 Nelson

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

Granit Xhaka

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.

Bukayo Saka

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.



31 Responses to Much Was Revealed About Arsenal’s Squad: Newcastle Report & Ratings

  1. SharkeySuresGhost says:

    Happy New Year to All Gooners far and wide, and to my old pals here
    Willian was awful, truly truly awful. 4, max.

  2. LB says:

    Wow, a Sharkey comment, a real treat.

  3. LB says:

    A great, great read, the problem I have is that I agree with all of it and so do not have much to add. This is what happens, we start winning and tumble weed starts rolling across the blog.

  4. Rasp says:

    Hi Sharkey, great to hear from one of the ‘originals’ … keep commenting even if once a year.

  5. Pete the Thirst says:

    Can’t argue with much of that Rocky. Well played.

    Tbh I think you’re going easy on Willian & Pepe. They’re stinking the place out. ESR & Saka are on a different level to them on effort and movement.

    Leno’s Double save at the end of normal time was outstanding.

    Also VAR did the job it was meant to. The Newcastle player needs to have a look at himself. Pathetic

  6. LB says:

    Arteta was quizzed by Charles Watts in the press conference about Willlian and Arteta was adamant that he intends to continue persevering with him.

    You are right above that he really doesn’t get the idea of give and go.

    Or maybe, in the time that he was on the pitch was there anyone who was capable of returning a pass to him………..

    Pepe, Willock, Aubamayang………….

  7. Rasp says:

    Thanks once again Rocky.

    I completely agree with your praise of the top performers and understand your leniency on some of those who disappointed.

    I have a couple of observations. Hopefully Mikel is looking at various blends of his best eleven depending on whether we face a packed defence or a high press attacking opposition.

    In that way he can satisfy all requirements of resting key players whilst keeping others involved and with game time.

    Luiz is an example. I’d say he is our 3rd or 4th choice CB, but he is the only one who can deliverer those early pinpoint crossfield balls that bypass the opposition’s midfield.

    Two players worth a mention yesterday are Xhaka and Elneny as you mentioned in your report, they kept it simple but tried to find a forward pass rather than slowing the game down as sometimes happens.

    As regards Nelson and Willock, I’m wondering if a period on loan would be the best for their development for the latter half of the season.

  8. RA says:

    Hi Rocky, a great analytical Post and I I tend to have a second read before commenting. 😁

    You and FGG were having a little chat, long after I disappeared, following the match, but FGG did make a point that was a toothsome thought.

    In essence he said, referring to Xhaka, that once a player becomes pinged for his attitude, or for playing in the wrong position – or playing for Arsenal, at all – he automatically has fans scrutinising him for confirmatory flaws in every game thereafter.

    You are right, FGG, and it is just down to human nature, which can be unkind, once provoked.

    There are people who appear on TV, for instance, whom I find talentless, or stupid or who seem to be on shows because of who they know — and I grab the control to swiftly turn to another channel when they appear.

    Same with Xhaka. He is never going to be a favourite of mine, because he is someone whose attitude is all wrong, as when he put two fingers up to Arsenal fans some time back, and who can p*ss about in our penalty area until he loses the ball, and then blames another team mate for his mistake, et seq.

    When he plays, my mindset is immediately programmed to see what cock-ups he is going to make, and when contrary to expectations he plays well, I am very reluctant to say so.

    The inverse of that is when someone like Martinelli plays I immediately expect ‘good’ things, and I watch him play and forgive any small error he might make.

    Perhaps I am alone in that? But the evidence of reading other comments makes me doubt that I am.🤪

  9. LBG says:

    Thanks Rocky. Much to agree with, and disagreements oft stated and will only be proved or otherwise with time.
    Two observations/comments concerning style of play most important to me and, I believe, a successful future. To quote Ian Wright ” Smith-Rowe is one of the few in the squad who plays on the half turn”. It is this skill above all that creates the dynamic one-two speed of movement of the ball that has been vital in our recent rejuvenation. Linked closely to this is the need for a Lacazette type player, prepared to “put his head in where it hurts” to keep the move going. Aubang cannot do this.
    Finally, I personally prefer the ‘directly forward pass’ that Gabriel, Holding and Mari are all prepared to attempt in recent games, than the oft quoted long diagonals that is Luiz’s preference. Diagonals are then more snappy/ inside full backs and effective from midfielders like Partey, and even occasionally, X!😉

  10. RA says:

    Back to your Post, Rocky.

    I re-read your player analyses and ratings and can find only agreement with the narrative and ratings for each player.

    In the context of the game being pretty darned average and only exploded into life late on with Saka, ESR and Laca coming on, did that have an impact on those players who struggled manfully to impose themselves on the game, without too much success?

    There is a slight nagging question I set myself, where some of the younger players were concerned, — and it is; ‘If last night’s team was a 2nd team, in essence, where players have not played together very often, was the consequences of this some of the poorer performances by a couple of these younger players who were adversely affected by the standards of other players around them, who were not necessarily of 1st team quality?

    If that was the case, then I think the jury could reasonably still be out for Willock and Nelson.

    There could be an extension of that to the problems Willian is experiencing, and maybe he and the youngsters might still come good, if they get more time with our best players.

    [I do not understand what is going on with Auba. He is really struggling too. As you said, with a brilliant attacking FB like Keiran providing some beautiful crosses, if we had a player who could, like Giroud, head the damned ball, we could/should be rich in goals.]

  11. RC78 says:

    Thanks for the post and ratings Rocky. Like our fellow bloggers, I tend to agree with your assessment for the most part so I will just focus on the points of contention below since you invited us to do so in the Disclaimer 😛

    1. Soares – I did not find his contribution to our defensive or attacking plays very exciting since he joined us and yesterday was no different. If we are to keep Bellerin in the squad, I think we can get rid of Soares to be honest and we would then need to get a top player as Right-Back. Someone who will come as a starter basically.

    2. RN – I think RN can do well for us. I would say that I have more confidence that he will come good for us rather than Willock or Nketiah. As such, I would suggest loan moves for Willock and Nketiah rather than for RN.

    3. AMN – I think we need to really do something with him. The player loves Arsenal and he can be so good both going forward and defending as well. I think that if Arteta does not intend to use him much this season, then we should consider loaning him out as well. Otherwise, I would say that we need to basically tell him exactly our plans for him – I would not be opposed to seeing El Neny leave if we can turn AMN into a solid defensive-minded midfielder.

    4. Not related to your post but
    A) what do we do with:
    1. Balogun
    2. Chambers
    3. Mustafi
    4. Sokratis
    5. The back-up GK position…?

    B) Here is my preferred line-up when all fit and also based on form:

    Leno – AMN, Mari, Gabriel, Tierney – Partey, Ceba – Saka, ESR, Martinelli – Laca

    C) Milik still available for a cut-down price…He is a good forward…So if Nketiah goes, I wouldn’t mind bringing in Milik.

  12. RockyLives says:

    Thanks All for some excellent comments.

    Sharkey! What a nice surprise. You were around and long established here when I first stumbled into the joint on a wintery evening and asked for a drink.

    It’s possible I was a bit too hard on Willock and Nelson and a bit too soft on Pepe and Willian.

    Redders makes the point that confirmation bias affects how we see things and I have no doubt I am a sufferer of that condition (like the rest of you 🙂 ).

    For what it’s worth, with everyone fit and available, my first choice starting 11 would be:
    Bellerin- Holding-Gabriel-Tierney
    Saka-Smit Rowe-Martinelli

    No place for the captain! And I am not sure that I have it right with Xhaka-Partey because Elneny-Partey might be a better bet, with Elneny playing the same role he did yesterday and allowing Partey to be more forward-minded. In that case Xhaka would come in when we need to rest Partey or when he’s unavailable for other reasons.

  13. LB says:

    I think if you had Elneny or Xhaka I doubt that anyone would differ from your team.

    And there it is — complete agreement on the starting 11

    That has not happened in a while.

  14. LB says:


    I think you confirm the need for Soares possibly without realising it.

    If we bring in a better RB than Bellerin, a player who would slot straight in then Hector would quite simply ask to leave asap and we would be back to needing Soares.

    Finding a player who is happy getting paid for not playing is not easy. Not one of a high enough standard anyway.

    I seems so many differ on this idea I am wondering if I am going wrong and do not realise it?

    For the avoidance of doubt, I am always in favour of up grading any player in the squad.

  15. RC78 says:

    Hi LB – I think that Bellerin is home-grown so I would like to keep him on the squad also because he can be very good and is still young. He also has a great knowledge of the club so I would rather keep him. He needs to be more challenged for his starting spot though because Soares is not really piling any pressure on him. So at this stage, I d keep Bellerin, kick Soares out and bring in a player that could really fight for the starting position.

    Soares is a decent back-up but he is not great. If we want to improve, we have to also improve our players and I think that at RB, we could you some strengthening for sure – hence, I am leaning towards a Soares exit.

  16. LB says:


    On the basis that Hector would be happy as back up and playing the occasional game then yes your view makes sense.

    As you say, Hector is still young so I ask the question why on earth would he want to stay at a club at which he only plays occasionally?

    And we are back to needing Soares………..

    It’s like the triangle conundrum — you can have any two sides you want but you can never have all three.

  17. RC78 says:

    I think Hector will try to fight for his place except if he can be a benchwarmer at Barcelona

  18. RockyLives says:

    Sorry RC – I’m with LB on this one.

    We either upgrade the starting RB position by selling Bellerin and getting in a right-footed Kieran Tierney (we can dream!) – in which case Cedric is OK as back-up.

    Or we keep Hector as starting RB in which case… well.. Cedric is OK as back-up.

  19. LB says:


    I think Barcelona is the only place that Hector would be prepared to be a bench warmer; he would be wanted at too many clubs just to be a bench warmer for us.

  20. LB says:

    The only other conversation point that has arisen today is LBG’s view that he prefers Holding’s simple passes that find their man rather than a Luiz’s long diagonals such as the one that created the best chance of the first half for Aubamayang to run onto one on one with the keeper. (If I have understood this correctly)

    Purposely ignoring who is a better defender it seems from a percentage point we retain possession from the Holding type passes where as we could possibly win a game from Luiz’s passes.

    Tricky one to call………………

    Oh, by the way, it is interesting how Aubamayang gets a pass for messing up his one on one where as Willian gets hammered for missing the much harder follow up.

    I suppose that is what RA means above when talking about Xhaka.

  21. Aaron says:

    Rocky, you have an engine man.

    Some solid insight into these players and where they fit.
    Agree with almost everything.

    The true starters sort themselves, either outright starting or rotational filler. Everyone know who they are in the defense, midfield and up top is more complicated. But, that is why it is called a squad and Mikel is paid well to figure out this simple stuff.

    Couple of points.

    Willock has that “the Jeff” type of turn and move, long stride, goes both ways from half turn and can blow by people on the initial first steps. However, he hesitates a bit on what to do with the ball next, and does not have the confidence yet to try and pass the ball through the lines, and ends up holding the ball too long. I think there is a player in there that just needs time.

    Nelson too has the “direct driveness” that our front line needs to have in order to not allow the opposition to get set up in the “6-4-0 low block.” Also, he has that trickiness that is required when the opposition is in a low block to disrupt and bring others into the attacking equation. Problem for him is fitness so far.

    Auba performed exactly how he is set up to perform, service into the box, and a goal. Not much when considering the total system, but everything to the teams bottom line of scoring.

    Bel, sell him, plug in AMN or someone else who wants to wear the shirt.

    Xhaka can do well higher up the pitch with cover, not El Neny as pace is nonexistent between the two. Sell him if he cannot fit in the system, and if he does not want to ride pine behind Partey, if that is where Mikel sees him.

    Pepe, f me if that guy can even run balanced. He played better yesterday, but still made some poor choices in and around the box with better options. This is another one Mikel will have to sort.

    Hope to see Balo get a chance to play more.

  22. RockyLives says:

    Good points Aaron

    This on Willock: “However, he hesitates a bit on what to do with the ball next, and does not have the confidence yet to try and pass the ball through the lines, and ends up holding the ball too long,” is very well put and a much better way of explaining what I was trying to describe in the post.

    I hope you’re right about him potentially coming good.

  23. LBG says:

    On the contrary, it was not a simple pass that Holding made for Saka to turn and run to make the goal in the last game. It was a pass at speed and accurately, that by-passed our midfield and theirs and enabled a talented forward to use his skill and speed to beat his man and create a tap in.
    Nine out of ten of Luiz passes do not create chances, and tend to slow the game.

  24. Gööner In Exile says:

    Nice summation of the performance Rocky as others have said little to disagree with.


    John O’Shea won 5 league titles with United, as did Wes Brown. The point is neither were regular starters. Ans neither were first team Calibre.

    Put Willock or Nelson in ten top level players they will be pulled up to their level, put them on with 5/10 players and they will be pulled towards the average.

    If Willian only gets a 6 on £192k a week does it really justify keeping him ahead of Willock who is probably lucky to be on £30k.

  25. LB says:

    Just looked at the Holding pass again — good pass, perhaps I missed it at the time, I suspect I was focused on the genius of what Saka did with it.

  26. fred1266 says:

    We did let the better keeper go look how great villa are playing think Emi has the most CS if not very close

  27. fred1266 says:

    Someone mentioned willian and pepe were so much shit it hampered the rest of the team, along with willock, I personally wouldn’t judge him on this game after seeing how he played in Europe he has been excellent

  28. fred1266 says:

    Then again pepe has been great in Europe so maybe it the opposition and willock not ready for prem

  29. RockyLives says:

    Fred, you’re right to mention that the context in which they are playing is important.

    Many players are greatly influenced by the level of those around them.

    The Invincibles team had a ridiculous amount of ‘leaders’ but there were other players whose game was raised just by playing alongside them.

  30. RC78 says:

    Hi everyone – Arteta said he will help Pepe succeed and he believes in him. I thought Pepe did an OK job vs Newcastle, creating situations but lacking the final product but he could have scored or assisted for sure…What if Pepe finally delivers?

    In any case – I was wondering if anyone has seen Che Adams play for Southampton. The guy’s stats are quite interesting and he could be a good alternate to ESR…but I have never seen him play. I was just browsing stats and see that he ranks quite well for assists, chances created and has scored a few goals too…

  31. RockyLives says:


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