After our recent F.A. Cup clash afforded us more than enough time to get a handle on Newcastle, I still had my concerns about our ability to break them down without the benefit of extra time. In hindsight, any skepticism I had turned out to be irrelevant after another revitalised second half performance. In the same way Arteta managed to exact change with his water breaks last season, there’s been a recurring theme this season after the interval.
While there’s some room for concern to be scoring almost twice as many goals in the second half as the first, it’s unreasonable to expect perfect balance between the two. On this occasion, it wasn’t that we were without chances but for whatever reason, the goal escaped us and more specifically, Aubameyang. It’s fair to say in recent weeks, Aubameyang has been on the fringes of losing his place in the starting lineup and without the captaincy, he may well have already done so. I’d never felt like his drop in form was at all related to his new contract and he was perhaps the biggest victim of our October-December run of form. He’s never been one to create something out of nothing, so it’s no surprise he struggled for goals in this period because the chances weren’t there.
More recently, it’s often felt like the goals have escaped him even when the team has been doing well. The West Brom performance springs to mind, with Aubameyang clearly desperate to get his name on the scoresheet with some uncharacteristically ambitious, if not greedy attempts on goal but it never came. Against Newcastle in the F.A. Cup, even in the dying stages, it was clear that goal meant something. On this occasion, the first half chances that fell to him weren’t the kindest as both were on his left foot but for a player of his calibre, it’s more than fair to say at least one should’ve been put away.
The thing is with good strikers, they carry on popping up in the right places and when Partey slipped his marker as he so often does, Aubayemang was already tearing up the left flank in anticipation. With the ball at his feet, he never looked out of control and while the placement of the finish didn’t look entirely intentional, it was well overdue.
With nowhere to hide, Newcastle came out of their shell and as the game became more stretched, the chances opened up. Saka saw a chance well blocked after combining well with Lacazette and it was only minutes later that the decisive second game. After being fed through by Aubameyang, Smith Rowe still had a lot to do but absolutely turned Lascelles inside-out. One look up and the ball was on a plate for Saka who could hardly miss. If there was still the slightest hint of doubt before the game, Smith Rowe went and carved his name onto the scoresheet and I can’t help but smile watching him do what we’ve been crying out for someone to do all season. He does the simple things well, he doesn’t take any more touches than he needs (which is usually just the one) and he has the brain and the ability to make things happen in the final third.
It was something he touched upon in his post-match interview, saying “growing up, I’ve always tried to play 1 touch. If I know what I’m going to do when I get the ball, why not play off of 1 touch, you know?”. There’s a beautiful simplicity to that but as our other options have so often demonstrated this season, it’s not easy. Since coming into the side, he’s also created 10 chances with only Bruno Fernandes creating more. While the sample size is small, it now complicates our interests in recruiting someone in this position. Until very recently, it was a position crying out for reinforcements and loan moves for players like Isco seemed to be on the cards. A more permanent solution like Emi Buendia was also tabled to take over the reigns from Mesut Ozil. There are still some hurdles for Smith Rowe to overcome to convince those that matter that he’s the one; his sample size is still small and compared to many around him, the first team appearances are still lacking. That is partly a circumstance of his injury record, but unlike other emerging players, he has also enjoyed two loan spells and the regular playing time there, particularly at Huddersfield, seems to have done some good. It would still be a lot to ask to expect him to assume the role for the rest of the season, and I think the team would really suffer if he picked up an injury, but the position is unquestionably up for grabs if he can maintain this kind of form.
A skill often attributed to world class players is their ability to make players around them better. That much is clear looking at a player like Bruno Fernandes, who has transformed United into title challengers (which we can hopefully hinder in a few weeks time). One signing. Thomas Partey is another, as he somehow made Mohamed Elneny look like prime Gattuso against United and brings such immediate and obvious quality and assurance to the team every time he plays (and long may that continue now that he’s back to almost-full fitness). While he has a long way to go to earn that kind of reputation, I also think Smith Rowe has improved those around him. For too long, Saka has shouldered the creative responsibility almost entirely on his own (along with Kieran Tierney), and now that he’s got a playmate, he’s been adding goals and assists to his name on a more consistent basis. He also appears to be on the same wavelength as Alex Lacazette, who was once again heavily involved with the two Hale Enders to great effect. So often stranded with acres of space between himself and the languishing midfield behind him for much of the season, he suddenly has teammates he can play off and he’s looked a different player.
With his contract approaching somewhat of a crossroads with 18 months left, the sell or extend debate has probably become just as complicated as the Number 10 dilemma. I’m a firm believer in the concept of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and as much as he looked dead in the water at times this season, he’s shown what he can do with the right players around him. He was also singled out by Smith Rowe, who said of Lacazette “playing with him up top, really helps me. He gives me a lot of confidence off the pitch and he talks to me a lot.” While David Luiz is likely to be off at the end of the season, one of the oft-cited benefits of having players like him around are their positive influence behind the scenes and if Lacazette is also doing the right things on the pitch, I wouldn’t bemoan a 1-year contract extension to a 29 year old.
The chances continued to flow after the second, with Lacazette himself unlucky to not be on the end of Tierney’s fizzed cross through the 6-yard box, and he was also denied at the back post after an in-swinger from Saka. There’s also a refreshing variety emerging in our chance creation, with the front four all combining well and sharing responsibility, as well as the fullbacks on both sides being heavily involved once again. The third was a result of these usual suspects, with Saka intercepting high up the pitch and immediately putting Cedric through and he did well to pick out Aubameyang who made no mistake with his right foot.
It was important to get back to winning ways and put a disappointing, if not lucky draw with Crystal Palace behind us as we head into a difficult set of fixtures. I’m sure Arteta will be echoing the words of his former manager in taking things one game at a time, but with teams continuing to drop points around us, there’s still some chances to come away with something this season. It remains to be seen whether this transfer window is purely for clearing out the deadwood, but there are still some holes that need plugging so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some loan signings at the very least.
After tonight’s confirmation, we face Southampton in the 4th Round of the F.A. Cup, as another convenient taster course to the exact same fixture in the Premier League 3 days later. It’ll be a far stiffer test than the one posed by Newcastle, and will be a good indication of how far we’ve come in recent weeks.
Edit: Oh, and apparently we don’t concede goals anymore, so that’s nice.