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.
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.
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.