Three lessons from Arsenal’s win over Newcastle

Arsenal kickstarted their 2019/20 season with a hard-fought victory over Newcastle at St. James’ Park last Sunday. Besides the win, what have we learnt from Arsenal’s performance going into matchday two against Burnley this weekend?

The most refreshing aspect of Sunday’s rather drab affair, was the performance of two of Arsenal’s most promising Hale End graduates- Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock. It was the first time that Arsenal named two English teenagers in the starting team for a Premier League game since February 1998. Eyebrows were raised when the two teenagers were included in Unai Emery’s starting XI, but both players justified their selection.

19 year-old, Joe Willock was deployed in the attacking midfield position ahead of the two holding midfielders- Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi. He was most effective at carrying the ball in midfield. On one occasion who ran past three Newcastle players before being fouled. He also demonstrated his ability to win the ball back, with a fantastic recovery tackle on Jonjo Shelvey which prompted Emery to leap in joy on the touchline. Although his 74% pass completion needs improvement, there were plenty of positives to take from Willock’s display.

Nelson was positioned on the left-wing, with the recent departure of Alex Iwobi opening the door for himself, Martinelli and Saka. His dribbling and link up play in the first-half was incredibly effective, as he drifted into pockets of space and played ‘one-twos’ with his team-mates. Only Maitland-Niles (four) had completed more dribbles than Nelson (three). At times his passing was off, and he did tire as the second half progressed, but this performance will give Emery confidence that selling Iwobi was the correct decision.

We cannot that Arsenal’s stand-in right-back, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is still only 21. He has softened the blow of losing Hector Bellerin for nine months with a consistent level of performance, in a position which is certainly not his best. Maitland-Niles was crucial to Arsenal’s win, as he nicked the ball of Jetro Willems, before driving down the right and finding Aubameyang with a pinpoint floated ball over Jamaal Lascelles. His four dribbles were not equalled by anyone else on the pitch, and he looked comfortable in defence.

All three players will be pushing for a starting berth once again, on Saturday against Burnley, and following on from their performances last week, plenty less eyebrows would be raised were to be included in the starting XI.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND – AUGUST 11: Reiss Nelson of Arsenal applauds fans after the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal FC at St. James Park on August 11, 2019 in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. (Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images)

The man that Maitland-Niles found with the cross, was the lethal Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He has already started his goalscoring form this season in a match where he was largely starved of any service. His only chance in the first-half was beaten away by Martin Dubravka. Fortunes changed midway through the second-half, as Aubameyang caressed the floated ball down, before lofting the ball over the Newcastle goalkeeper and into the net. Aubameyang has shown once more that he is a clinical poacher in the box, and he will always get goals, no matter how few chances he has.

His goal against Newcastle was his 33rd in just 50 Premier League games, matching the record of Fernando Torres- only four players have scored more in that time.

With players like Nicolas Pepe, Mesut Ozil and Dani Ceballos to soon be starting, Aubameyang will get plenty of chances to improve upon his 22 goals from last season.

Expect the Gabonese striker to score again against Burnley this weekend.

Whilst the performance of Aubameyang and Arsenal’s young English talent has offered much hope of a successful season, the same cannot be said for Armenian midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The right-winger was often taking up good pockets of space, and found himself on the ball plenty of times. However, his passing was wasteful. He lost possession 15 times in just the first half- much more than anyone else on the pitch. He also had a great chance to open the scoring inside the opening 30 minutes, but he fired wildly over the ball from inside the box.

He was outshone by Reiss Nelson on the opposite flank, and with record signing, Pepe, nearing match fitness, do not be surprised to see Mkhitaryan given far less opportunities from the start, beginning with Burnley this Saturday.

Arsenal’s Transfer Conundrum: A Potential Solution?

The 2018/19 season was to say the least, a struggle for Arsenal. Although they improved on the 2017/18 season points total of 63, amassing 70 points, questions remain to be answered. They conceded the same amount of goals (51) as the season before- 1.34 goals per match, which was the 9th worst record in the league, whilst their xGA was 54.1, the 11th worse in the league, clearly their defensive frailties cannot be put down to bad luck. Despite this, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang finished as the top-joint Premier League goal scorer with 22 goals, and fellow forward Alexandre Lacazette was both a productive goalscoring and creative force. Anterior cruciate ligament injuries to both Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding no doubt hampered the defence, which was ruthlessly exposed, especially towards the tail end of the season, with consecutive defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester, where the team conceded 9 goals.

Arsenal players react to conceding at Stamford Bridge

Arsenal manager Unai Emery has always favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation in his time in Spain, France and Russia, using a system that relies on heavy pressing, overlapping full-backs, and a defensive pivot at the base of the midfield. It is this system predominantly considered when looking at potential players to join Arsenal. He typically signs players who still have a high potential, usually acquiring players in the early to mid-20’s. These factors, along with Arsenal’s relatively restricted budget will be considered when evaluating potential incomings.

Upon analysing Emery’s squad for the 2018/19 season their seem to be multiple areas in the team that need upgrading or greater cover, the most pressing positions that Arsenal should strengthen in the next month are right-back, centre-back, left-back, central midfield/box-to-box, and a wide midfielder.

At right-back, Bellerin’s long-term injury will keep him out until mid-October, and Carl Jenkinson should be deemed surplus to requirements. Although Ainsley Maintland-Niles filled in adequately following Bellerin’s injury, right full-back is not his natural position. He was exposed vs West Ham in January and most notably the Europa League final, where he needlessly conceded a penalty. Although both athleticism and determination allowed Maintland-Niles to recover at times, it would be best to find a competent natural right-back cover for Bellerin, who is comfortable playing in defence.

What may be a greater worry though for Arsenal are the problems at centre-back. Shkodran Mustafi was arguably Arsenal’s worst performer last season, especially when facing Crystal Palace at home. Sokratis offered some defensive solidity, although he could often be caught out of position and had a poor disciplinary record, on top of this he is now 31, and questions lie over how long he can last at the top level. Moreover, club captain, Laurent Koscielny recently refused to travel to the U.S with the team, as he attempts to force a move to France. Still, Arsenal have promising options at the centre of defence. Rob Holding was in fine form before his season-ending injury and should play at the heart of the defence when fit again. Kristian Bielik who spent last season on loan at Charlton also offers much promise, a ball-playing central defender that can also fit in central midfield, Bielik was Man of the Match in Charlton’s League 1 promotion play-off and starred at the Euro-u21 championships for Poland. Despite these options, it would be advisable that Arsenal brought in a ready-made centre-back who has played at the top European level to partner Holding this season.

RB Leipzig’s Nordi Mukiele would be able to solve issues for Arsenal both at centre-back and right back, as he can play well in both positions. His main strengths are through balls from defence and passing out from the back, a player that likes to also dribble out of defence. Mukiele is also aerially strong, something that Arsenal can lack and at only 21, he still has a high ceiling, enabling the club to potentially make profit on the player in the next 5-10 years. Although it is his adaptability that may be what is most appealing to Arsenal, due to their supposed lack of funds. Mukiele is able to solve two of their greatest defensive issues, as both a competent right-back and centre-back. Out of the 14 starts he made in the Bundesliga last season, 5 games were at centre-back and 9 were at right-back. Transfermarkt valued the player at 15 million euros (at the point of 5/6/2019), so he should not consume an enormous amount of Arsenal’s reportedly small transfer budget. His malleability, age, and reasonable price should make Mukiele an enticing prospect for Arsenal.

Nordi Mukiele could offer stability at centre-back and right-back. (Photo by Matthias Kern/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Although the Arsenal centre-backs were heavily criticised for the porous defence last season, the overlapping full-backs provided little cover. Particularly on the left side where Sead Kolasinac typically plays, the Arsenal defence was continuously exposed. Although he provided an admirable 5 assists, his crossing was inconsistent at best, this was seen in the Europa League final where he missed opportunities to pick out Lacazette and Aubameyang with a simple pass. Meanwhile, long servant to the club Nacho Monreal is now 33 and may soon be on his way out, posing a problem for Arsenal at left-back.

Kieran Tierney seems to be the name most mentioned with filling the left-back role this summer. The Scottish international has been a stalwart in the Celtic backline. Tierney is still only 22 and has already been playing professionally for 5 years. He carries a similar dynamism to Kolasinac going forward, and although he may not possess the same physical strength, his low-crossing abilities seem superior. More importantly for Arsenal, Tierney is seen as a more consistent defender, and someone who will not be caught as high up the pitch on such a regular basis, as Kolasinac was. It is rumoured that Tierney would cost around £25 million, which may seem a steep figure- it would make Tierney the most expensive outgoing from the Scottish Premiership. Despite this, his age and ability can provide up to 10 of a quality left-back option, something that has not been properly resolved since the departure of Gael Clichy.

Kieran Tierney, Celtic

The end of this season brought the curtain down on Aaron Ramsey’s long and successful Arsenal career, as he regrettably joined Juventus on a free transfer, following his contract expiration. This has left a hole in the centre of Arsenal’s midfield that needs to be filled. No matter whether Emery favours the 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2 or the 5-2-1-2 there is always a spot vacant for either a box-to-box midfielder or an attacking playmaker. Mesut Ozil has struggled under Unai Emery’s pressing tactics, and the manager’s preference for the ball to be pushed out wide, rather than through the middle. Joe Willock offers much promise, and his performances in the first team last year have led to him deservedly being included in the Arsenal squad on their tour of the U.S. However, it would be a tall order for Willock to fill Ramsey’s boots. A potential signing that could solve both the Ramsey and Ozil conundrum at Arsenal is Rodrigo De Paul. Last season at Udinese De Paul amassed 9 goals and 8 assists in 36 games, having 2.4 shots per games and 2.7 key passers per game, as well as 2.3 dribbles per game. In comparison, Aaron Ramsey only manage 1.2 shots per game, 0.9 key passes per game and 0.4 dribbles per game. Similarly, Mesut Ozil averaged 0.5 shots per game, 1.9 key passes per game and 0.9 dribbles per game. De Paul offers an aggressive attacking midfielder who possesses both the quality to run the ball out of midfield and hold the eye for a pass. His ability to play in central midfield, like Ramsey, also offers an adaptability that Ozil does not possess. However, what is of even greater appeal is his ability to play out wide, like he did at Valencia. Like Mukiele he may be able to cover two positions for the price of one. De Paul, when not playing in central midfield will be able to compete on the wings with some of Arsenal’s younger talent, such as Alex Iwobi, Reiss Nelson, and recent signing Gabriel Martinelli. The price may still be an issue though. Despite De Paul not being at a European giant, but rather a relatively cash-strapped Udinese, the club will likely demand a large fee in excess of 30 million euros, as De Paul performed effectively for Argentina in the Copa America this summer. Therefore, if Arsenal are to make a deal happen, they must be willing to spend a great part of their reported budget.   

Rodrigo De Paul, Udinese

Considering the time left to make deals happen, and the supposed lack of finances that Arsenal possess, these three deals offer both good value for money, youthful players with a greater potential, as well as their ability to support other positions that the club may not invest in. The total of all three transfers, were they to happen would accumulate to around £65-80 million, which is equivalent to the reported fee that Crystal Palace are demanding for Wilfried Zaha. However, it seems that Arsenal are to look outside of the Premier League if they want value for money, and their desperation to sign Zaha should by no means take priority over Arsenal’s vulnerable defence, which is the main area of the team that needs reinforcement.