Even after a full week’s rest, there was a case for some players to be rested after a congested Christmas fixture list, with Lacazette, Smith Rowe and Saka all starting from the bench. Further unwanted changes were made when Martinelli suffered a freak injury in the warmup, with what looked like an ankle sprain if this is anything to go by. The fact that he was able to walk off the pitch and was seen weight-bearing with a brace will hopefully mean it isn’t too serious but that remains to be seen until we hear from the club itself.
The only outlier in all of this was Kieran Tierney, who has the most minutes played of any outfield player this season. You’d be hard pressed to argue that he hasn’t quite done enough to earn a rest, what with his imperious form all season but there he was, still bombing down the left flank even as we approached the 120th minute. Turns out it didn’t take long to find a natural successor to Ramsey on this front.
Needless to say, the changes opened the doors for the familiar B Team faces and besides Aubameyang (who likely replaced Martinelli at centre-forward), it was exactly the kind of team you’d expect to see in the Europa League. It was also exactly the kind of performance you’d expect from the B Team when they were tasked with playing a far better side than we’re used to playing in the Europa League. Even with elbow-happy donkeys like Andy Carroll deputising as an extra centre-back for most of the game.
What the B Team did have was robustness in bounds but few who could really unlock the door, so it was no surprise the starting lineup were unable to break the deadlock. It’s not that there weren’t chances; Reiss Nelson did well to fashion himself a chance just after kickoff and despite losing some space with poor control, Aubameyang’s sort-of 1-on-1 was well hit and well saved. The most glaring miss also came to Nelson, who inexplicably tried to take a touch in the box after Tierney passed to him on a silver platter. The more I’ve watched that chance back, the worse it gets and I really can’t understand why he didn’t just put his foot through it.
Chances also fell to Willock, with the best being a header that ended up with more face/eye than forehead if his pained expression after the save was anything to go by. For two players who have done well in the Europa League season, both Nelson and Willock have struggled to make the transition to have an impact against Premier League opposition and I wonder if this is the time for at least one to find a loan spell somewhere. There’s aspects of both their games that I like, but as we’ve seen in recent weeks (and indeed yesterday), end product reigns supreme and a consistent run of games elsewhere may just find that composure.
Our two right-wing understudies to Bukayo Saka were also in action, with Willian pushed out to the left. While his standards continue to amaze me, to the point where I can’t actually remember a player’s form tombstoning so quickly, I thought Pépé – as ever, in fairness – was at least trying to make things happen. Willock’s header was a result of a deft, clipped cross and there were some in-field runs that showed promise before Pépé’s inconsistent decision-making let him down. Much like Willock and Nelson, I wish we had the security to allow these players some room to make mistakes because there’s always glimmers of something but we’re not.
Ultimately, Arteta’s changes in and around the hour mark were the beginning of the end for Newcastle; Smith Rowe’s immediate impact with more give-and-goes and directness, shortly followed by Xhaka and Saka who brought the finesse and uptick in tempo that their departing counterparts were otherwise lacking.
There were still scares that may have cost us on another day if not for Leno. Old Andy Equine missed the goal entirely from 6 yards out, even though he shouldn’t have been on the field after swinging his elbow into Joe Willock’s head, as he so often does (swing his elbows, not attack Joe Willock specifically). The biggest moment of the 90 minutes also fell to Carroll, and despite having little to do for most of the game, was alert to the danger and closed down the initial angle well before diving on the rebound and securing the ball. Now that he’s got some half-decent defenders playing in front of him on a consistent basis, the clean sheets are starting to add up and without him, some results may have slipped through the net in recent weeks.
Arteta saved his last roll of the dice until the last 15 minutes when Lacazette was brought on, and just as against Brighton, he seemed to be the missing piece of the puzzle as the simmering trio came together again. The manner of the goal was much closer to the second against West Brom, with Smith Rowe pouncing on the slightest hint of an opening after Clark’s fumble. Despite being vastly outnumbered, it was the speed and directness which made the opening as they all seemed to read each other’s minds before it even unfolded. Smith Rowe doesn’t even take a second touch when he first intercepts the ball, the give-and-go was immediate and Lacazette is already the right side of his man and strong enough to win the jostle. There was still so much to do though and the effortless way in which Smith Rowe chested it down mid-stride and finished it on the half volley (even harder as he struck through the ball just as it bounced the second time) made it look so much easier than it actually was. Oh, and he stuck it in the far corner. From what I’ve seen and heard about his loan at Huddersfield, he was often involved in what they did well and it’s a credit to Smith Rowe for continuing to prove himself with every opportunity he gets, which very much feels like how Saka burst onto the scene.
His emergence also makes me feel like loans for a few fringe players are overdue. Willock played 44 times last season and has been given plenty of opportunities this time around, albeit in a variety of different roles. Nelson played well for a time at Hoffenheim but has struggled for consistency and game time and while he especially may begrudge another loan, he’s down the pecking order. I also wouldn’t mind betting that if the right offer came along for either of them, we would probably let them go.
Others like Pépé and Willian, even at opposite ends of their careers, seem to be losing stock with each matchday and when the likes of Saka and Smith Rowe have such an impact even from the bench, they become harder and harder to drop. There are worse problems to have, but from an asset management point of view, it’s not ideal. At the very least, the most glaring problem on that front that everyone is sick of hearing about seems like they’ve finally found an exit.
In the end, it’s 4 wins in a row – all of which were in a pretty convincing manner. It would’ve been a massive shame to go out in the 3rd round, not only for our reputation in the competition but for the early shoots of momentum. With Crystal Palace on Thursday being another very winnable game, Arteta now has a clear view of what his best team is, even if it’s still in its infancy and we go into it in good shape.