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.
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.