The “Big Picture”
The winter break was an unfamiliar entry into the Premier League calendar but no doubt served as a welcome opportunity for some respite and reflection. There are several players in this squad that will have been more grateful to see such a break but the spotlight was well and truly on them now, with nowhere to hide as we approach the “business end” of the season.
Although news broke of the better-late-than-never unearthing of City’s financial criminality, it remains to be seen whether any punishments will come into effect this season, so the prospect of Champions League football via the traditional, domestic means is still unlikely. That being said, teams around us are heading into a difficult period of fixtures and it’s not like Arteta’s going to be telling them that this season is a write-off. It’s still all to play for and this is why it’s so crucial for these players to make a case for themselves and to prove to him that they deserve to be here. Dead wood is a term that’s often bandied around about this squad and the summer will no doubt see another clear out. Who will make the cut will very much depend on Arteta’s assessments as the season plays out.
We still have the prospect of another good Europa League run but whether Arteta has the nous for knockout football remains to be seen. I’d still fancy our chances of going far, but there’s plenty of tricky teams to get past that have dropped down from the Champions League group stages.
Newcastle were without a win since 2011 and without a goal since 2014, with Steve Bruce’s personal managerial record even more woeful; just 2 wins and 6 draws from 29 matches. The signals were there but whether we could shake our obsession with drawing was another matter.
Ever the pragmatist, Arteta wasn’t afraid to put his two weeks of tinkering to the test by giving Eddie Nketiah his first Premier League start ahead of the struggling Lacazette, while Martinelli was dropped from the starting lineup to accommodate Aubameyang. Despite Sead Kolasinac’s return to fitness, Bakayo Saka was given the nod ahead of him. That came as less of a surprise than Dani Ceballos joining Granit Xhaka in the centre of midfield, but Arteta knows a thing or two about number 8s from Spain.
The first half can mostly be described as.. chaotic. With little to no discernible shape, Newcastle looked just as likely to score as we did. Steve Bruce and Newcastle seemed to have put their horrendous records behind them and it felt like unfamiliar territory, with the pace and directness of their two wingers giving us plenty of cause for concern. It’s fair to say we grew into the half and if not for the last 10 minutes, you would have been hard pressed to give any details on Eddie Nketiah’s involvement in the game. In fairness to him, those behind him were hardly playing their part either on another day, he might have put his one effort on goal either side of the keeper with his first-time effort.
Saka was my only real positive take from the first half, as he gave us more of what we’re coming to expect – gutsy, surging runs, the odd ambitious shot but most importantly, was the intent.
The Arse got a kick up the aforementioned and the second half was almost night and day to much of what we saw in the first; there was that crucial bit of urgency and movement and it only took 9 minutes of this uptick in tempo to unlock the door. Credit where it’s due – Dani Ceballos was the main man in the opening stages of the second half, and as he began to get things rolling, Mesut Özil began to find the time and space that can sometimes elude him when the midfield setup behind him isn’t working. It was the former who picked out a loitering Pépé and after shaking off his first half inconsistencies (by that I mean wasting multiple set pieces by failing to beat the first man), he perfectly floated the ball onto the forehead of the goal-side Aubameyang. He still had plenty to do with the finish, but he applied the kind of finish that any young, aspiring forward should be looking at frame by frame. All in the neck.
The best of the bunch came only a few moments later and there was just so much to like about it. With Alex Iwobi’s departure, I was worried our list of “players who love a nutmeg” was looking bare but Saka is beginning to make it a habit. It’s one thing to nutmeg a player in a Premier League game, but to do it when you’re boxed into a corner by two opposition players, and then put it on a silver platter for Pépé is something else. His post-match sympathies went as far as saying “whoops”. That’s 8 assists in all competitions for Saka this season, more than any other player in the squad, while Pépé has a Premier League-high of 5.
It turned into a bit of a romp, one which perhaps flatters us but then again, it was par for the course for Steve Bruce and Newcastle. If not for the woodwork and some more conviction in their finishing, it could have been a far closer contest. That didn’t happen though and I don’t care because we not only won a game, we put the game to bed, have finally shaken our negative goal differential and no amount of poor officiating could stop us*.
*(That’ll be the world’s fastest offside call on Özil which ended up being wrong and would have seen Aubameyang with a tap in and the most ridiculous booking I’ve seen all season on Saka).
Speaking of which, Özil’s polarising performance was a frustrating one; he demonstrated again today that in the right setting, he has still got it. He was effortless in possession, was the architect in dictating our play in the final third and his movement and vision was unmatched on the day. He was rewarded with a goal and ran his socks off, as he so often does (much to the ire of many who wrongly assert that he’s “lazy”). And yet, he still has the capacity to not make a stamp on games, which is where my frustration lies. On this occasion, the surprise approach to our midfield ultimately paid off with one of Ceballos’ best performances for us and it went some ways in highlighting the significance of having a functional midfield behind Özil if we want to get the best out of him. His contract will take him to 2021, which means we have another 18 months of tinkering but when he plays like that, any and all frustrations go out of the window.
And just when you thought Lacazette was only due a cameo, he rounded off the romp by hoodwinking the keeper – and himself – with one of the luckier finishes you’ll see this season. They all count though and it was important for him to break this spell before it got anymore out of hand. In the end, it was just rewards for his work rate these past few weeks because for all of his ineptitude in front of goal lately, there’s so much more to his play and we need him firing on all cylinders again.
Ultimately, in the context of the final score, you’d say we were very lucky to keep a clean sheet, with Saint-Maximin in particular causing us all kinds of problems. It was also another blunder-less Mustafi performance, so there’s that.
After the game, Arteta had this to say of Bakayo Saka and I couldn’t agree more:
“It’s a big project but he’s performing like a senior player and he has the courage to play every day, to make decisions to risk in the final third and he got rewarded again”.
The league table isn’t pretty but to borrow one of Arsène’s catchphrases, I’m happy taking things “one game at a time”. We’ll be going to the all-too-familiar Olympiakos on Thursday, which is no easy task. Thankfully, this will have raised spirits nicely after their summery winter break.