Once upon a time in the not so distant past, a trip up north to watch Arsenal take on a lesser opponent filled supporters with an impending sense of dread. However, with a 2-1 victory over Newcastle on Sunday at St. James’ Park, the Gunners have now won their second straight away match. Perhaps most encouragingly of all, Unai Emery’s men have done so without even yet approaching their best form. With 3 straight Premier League wins under their belts, the Gunners are finding their way at just the right time with mid-week competitions and a congested schedule now on the horizon.
The Jekyll and Hyde Gunners
While Unai Emery and his squad will have been happy to leave Tyneside on Saturday having captured all 3 points from the hosts, there is no escaping the fact that this Arsenal team have yet to put in a full 90-minute performance this season. The frustrating first half initially had supporters dreading another anemic away defeat in 2018, but following the break, the Gunners wrestled the initiative away from Rafa Benitez’ men and hardly looked back en route to their third win in as many matches.
Unai Emery rightly deserves credit for his aggressive changes at half-time, including his much-lauded decision to bring on Lucas Torreira for Matteo Guendouzi, but the first half struggles pointed to either poor execution by the players or a flawed plan of attack from the manager himself. As has been the case this season when the Gunners are struggling to create chances, the midfield pivot of Granit Xhaka and Guendouzi appeared hopelessly overrun by an energetic Newcastle and were given poor support from the forwards and wide players for much of the first 45 minutes.
In the end, they were lucky to escape the first half without conceding, and did just enough to ensure victory in the second half. Still, supporters would prefer to see more consistency from this team, as they will not always be so lucky to face an opponent lacking the confidence to punish Emery and his players for their mistakes.
An Emphatic Response
Arsene Wenger’s departure in the spring may have removed a major lightning rod for criticism from the dressing room, but he was far from the only figure at the club to attract such polarising opinions from fans. Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil have continued to find themselves in the crosshairs this season, and some inconsistent showings since the opener have only fueled the debate. However, it was the much-maligned pair that came to the rescue on Saturday, each bagging a key second-half goal to seal the 2-1 victory.
It would be foolish to think that one match will silence the critics for any real length of time, but it was important for both players to be able to remind fans of their value. Xhaka opened the scoring for the afternoon with a 30-yard free-kick that rifled into the top corner, just tipping off of Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka’s outstretched gloves. After the flood of congratulatory teammates subsided, the midfielder had a small message for the traveling support as he mimicked a talking mouth with his hand in possible reference to the amount of hate he receives from some Arsenal supporters.
For the second straight match, Mesut Ozil grew into the game as it progressed, culminating in his calm and cool finish, again off a deflection, giving the Gunners a temporary 2-goal advantage. The goal will have been especially validating for the German playmaker, as his manager has twice been forced to respond to reports of a rift in their relationship. All appeared well on Saturday as Emery entrusted Ozil with a full 90 minutes, and the player responded with perhaps his most influential period of play for the entire season. Questions still remain as to whether it does the team a service playing Ozil on the right, and a win on Tyneside will hardly quell the “not a big game player” criticism, but the arrow is beginning to point upwards once again on the Gunners’ talisman.
Once, Twice, Three Times Torreira
Arsenal supporters are hardly known for sharing a united opinion on anything, but there is one thing that nearly everybody and their mother now agrees upon: Lucas Torreira needs to be handed his first start of the season. The diminutive Uruguayan has seen his stock rise a little bit in the eyes of the fans since his first appearance, but following his delightful assist in the 3-2 victory over Cardiff City, the buzz became a roar. After yet another influential performance following his entrance into the match at the half on Saturday, Unai Emery will be hard-pressed to continue omitting him from the starting XI.
Torreira quite simply possesses traits that no other Arsenal midfielder can currently match. His instinctual feel for when to time a challenge, just as the opponent turns his attentions elsewhere, as well as his incredible timing in disrupting the passing lanes are the very traits fans have been clamoring for, for years. While Torreira is obviously still adjusting to the rigorously physical Premier League, his energy and skill set are rapidly on the way towards making him truly undroppable when fit.
Sokratis Surprising Some
If Torreira was the summer signing fans looked forward to seeing most, Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ arrival was met with scepticism by some. Perhaps put off by his advanced age (30-years-old) and Borussia Dortmund supporters’ apparent indifference to his departure, fans largely did not see his signing as one that would help the Gunners claw back into the title race. However, Sokratis has surprised some this season with his tenacity and defensive nous, and he is now rapidly becoming indispensable to this Arsenal backline.
With concerns remaining over the play of Shkodran Mustafi, who follows moments of legitimate competence with infuriating lapses in judgement, Sokratis may be staking his claim on a starting spot next to captain Laurent Koscielny, once the Frenchman returns from his Achilles injury at the end of 2018. Sokratis showed off his no-nonsense approach in the first half following an ill-advised attempt at a lunging header by Mustafi, as the former Dortmund man used his pace to get back in plenty of time to save his partner from much vitriol of the traveling support. Lucas Torreira may be showing signs that he is every bit the player fans have been hoping for, but Sokratis has quietly begun to impress many of those who once treated his signing with limited enthusiasm.
Thursday Night Football Awaits
Despite the Premier League season having only just got underway a month ago, the race for Champions League places already appears as tough as it has ever been. Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City have gotten off to lightning fast starts, while the Gunners sit 6 points off the pace, level with Manchester United and Tottenham on 9 points. For Unai Emery and his Arsenal team, top 4 is no guarantee with such stiff competition.
The Europa League may just be the Gunners’ easier route back into a Champions League berth, and lucky for them, their new manager may just be the perfect man for the job, having won it 3 times with Sevilla. Arsenal will kick off their European season on Thursday night, when they host Ukrainian side Vorskla Poltava at the Emirates Stadium. The match should give Unai Emery a chance to experiment with his side, potentially allowing players like Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi to earn more minutes in the future. FC Vorskla are not expected to offer much resistance to the Gunners’ quality, but anything can happen on a European night.