An away win and a clean sheet have been far too rare for Arsenal over the last few years but Unai Emery’s side recorded a solid 1-0 win against Newcastle on the opening day of the Premier League season. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s solitary goal was enough to win the game for the Gunners as they slowly eased into the rigours of the Premier League. This tactical analysis aims to look at the tactics employed by both sides and the important statistics behind the result.
Arsenal, after much chopping and changing in pre-season, lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Bernd Leno started in goal with Calum Chambers and Sokratis as the defensive pairing. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal played as the full-backs. Given notable absentees and a lack of fitness amongst the new signings, Emery opted for Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi as a double-pivot. Reiss Nelson was handed a start as was Joe Willock. Henrikh Mkhitaryan played out wide as Aubameyang led the attack.
Newcastle opted for a 3-5-2 as record signing Joelinton led the attack along with Miguel Almiron. Setting up a defensive side, Steve Bruce opted for numbers in the middle of the pitch and looked for pace on the wings and up-front.
Back-four and balance
Arsenal are a better side when they play a back-four. It enables them to avoid being overrun in midfield, reduces the space the opposition can exploit between the lines and brings more dynamism to the attack in general. In this game, Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Newcastle’s formation did not allow them to commit their midfielders higher up the pitch and the profile of the midfielders were largely defensive in nature. This meant that the home side were unable to muster any great chances themselves. Joelinton held up the ball well and won aerial duels but had virtually no support in the form of runners from midfield. Similar was the case with Almiron, who despite his skillfulness was usually outnumbered and had the ball taken from him.
Sokratis and Chambers were expected to start with each other given the trends in pre-season and the duo did well to deal with Newcastle’s limited threat with ease. Chambers, in particular, was quietly solid in marshalling the defence. He was particularly good in his decision making with regards to when to attempt to win the ball higher up the pitch. Chambers rarely found himself caught out of position and was solid where required. The Englishman made 61 passes, losing the ball just once. His partner Sokratis was uncharacteristically a bit more held back with his challenges. The Greek won four aerial duels, made five clearances and one block. This looks to be the first-choice partnership at least until Rob Holding returns from injuries. While they will have sterner tests in the near future, both Chambers and Sokratis looked solid and composed.
The positional discipline from Arsenal‘s double-pivot was good. Xhaka was slightly cautious in committing himself too much and therefore did not exert as much of an attacking influence that is expected from him. Nevertheless, he was generally tidy and put in a shift defensively, making 84 passes, attempting five tackles and making two blocks. His partner in Matteo Guendouzi had a real maturity to his game, something that he lacked at times last season. The Frenchman has improved his general spatial awareness and communication with his teammates. He did an excellent job of dribbling out of trouble without risking the loss of possession. This enabled quick ball-progression but also ensured that Arsenal were rarely outnumbered when Newcastle attempted to counter.
Intelligent game management
Arsenal did well to manage the tempo of the game, not just after they took the lead but also when Newcastle looked to press them in the initial stages of the game. The new rule relating to defenders being in the box during goal-kicks prevented an unnecessary turnover of possession from a goal-kick. With Chambers and Sokratis positioned on either side of the box, it gave Leno two safe yet effective passing options. The back-four meant that both Maitland-Niles and Monreal made themselves more available for a pass from the centre-backs but at the same time combined well with the wingers ahead of them. The 3-4-1-2 employed by Emery heavily relied on the wing-backs for width but it was clear to see how much better Arsenal are with a 4-2-3-1. Emery’s side looked rusty which is understandable but were quick in transitions. Joe Willock had a good game in this regard as the young Englishman helped occupy Newcastle’s midfield and drag them out of position, opening up space in the central areas. Fellow teenager Reiss Nelson was comparatively quieter but showed good signs of being able to manipulate defenders and open up space.
It seems as though Emery has learnt that Arsenal are not the side to soak up pressure effectively and therefore instructed his players to remain aggressive rather than just simply sit back. The presence of ball carriers like Guendouzi, Willock and even Mkhitaryan meant that Arsenal were able to break out of tight situations well.
As expected, Newcastle were happy to concede possession to Arsenal. The home side had just 38 percent of the possession and managed just two shots on target. The Magpies were heavily reliant on Joelinton and Almiron to produce moments of magic, both of which were prevented by Arsenal dominating proceedings in midfield as well as the unwillingness of the Newcastle midfielders to get forward. It was only after the introduction of Allan Saint-Maximin and the shifting of Matt Ritchie to midfield did Newcastle have some directness to their play, albeit any end product.
Arsenal‘s goal came from a Newcastle error as Maitland-Niles latched onto a loose pass before crossing it to Aubameyang who had found space. Newcastle’s back-three failed to keep the Gabonese striker from finding space between them on many occasions. Aubameyang’s movement between the centre-backs was quick and penetrative. The forward saw a shot saved in the first half but made no mistake for Maitland-Niles’ cross, ghosting behind the defenders and deftly chipping a shot over the keeper. Few forwards in the world have better movement in the box than Aubameyang and he showed it on this occasion.
Overall it was an important win to start Arsenal‘s campaign as this tactical analysis has shown. With their best players absent, Arsenal managed to get the job done against a timid Newcastle without much opposition. Solid performances in defence are sure to encourage Emery and Willock and Nelson’s performances offer more optimism looking forward. Arsenal’s squad is looking quite solid at the moment and they are sure to get better once the first-teamers are fit to play over the next few weeks. For Newcastle, the result did not do much to mitigate the feeling of discontent around the club. While the Magpies actually stifled Arsenal, they were let down by some individual mistakes and a lack of quality in midfield. If such trends are to continue, it could be a long season going forward.