It was never going to be the swashbuckling, headline-capturing performance that many were hoping for. But Arsenal’s 1-0 away win against Newcastle at St. James’ Park was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Unlike Manchester City and Liverpool, two clubs who are streets ahead of the rest and capable of putting in a performance of mid-season calibre from the get-go, Arsenal and Unai Emery have much more work to do.
Injuries and a lack of match fitness across the first-team certainly were also considered. Rob Holding, Héctor Bellerín, David Luiz, Lucas Torreira, Mesut Özil, Sean Kolašinac, Kieran Tierney, and Alexandre Lacazette were all unavailable to start in our day-trip to the northeast of England. Despite that, a three-point haul in a historically tricky ground to get a result at, was sufficient.
The point haul aside, and kicking-off the campaign on the right foot took into account, the truth behind the curtain remained that, on another day, it could have very easily gone so differently.
Much of the same issues still persisted throughout the team – we still looked to struggle at many points when Newcastle looked to break, particularly through Miguel Almirón and pirate look-alike debutant Allan Saint-Maximin.
Fellow new-signing Joelinton also had his way with us in many sequences throughout his performance, particularly his dominance in the air and generally strong hold-up play. Much of this can be put down to one small factor; we were not direct enough in possession. One player who can help alleviate this issue was another new boy to rock up at London Colney this summer courtesy of the new regime; Nicolas Pépé
Nicolas Pépé; the player
One of the most sought-after names in recent window memory, Pépé – who was regularly linked with the likes of Liverpool and Bayern Munich – is arguably one of the best inside forwards in all of Europe.
It’s a tricky debate to take on in truth. As a player who has only put forth one season of undeniable quality (where many in France thought he deserved to be Ligue1 player of the season over Kylian Mbappe), what is undeniable is his ability to score goals.
Even two seasons ago during the 2017-18 campaign, one where he was far less effective under Marcelo Bielsa (who deployed him as a centre forward) in what was a torrid campaign for Les Dogues, the Ivorian international still managed to bag thirteen goals.
Under Christophe Galtier, however, his true qualities came to the fore during the 2018-19 season to the tune of twenty-two goals (nine from the penalty spot) and eleven assists while deployed wide on the right of a front three.
The on-pitch relationships he forged with Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikoné were nothing short of sensational to watch and showed how effective he could be when allowed to be tactically free in deployment.
It is these characteristics, and clear end-product born out of being deployed properly, that convinced Raul Sanllehi to break Arsenal’s transfer record to the tune of 72m pounds. These factors are also the reason the club hierarchy felt the need to invest in him rather than taking that same money and making a concerted move for a player such as RasenBallsport Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano. We need this, more than people realize.
Reliance on Aubameyang and the Pépé effect
No one wants to relive the frustrations of last season in the first year of the Emery reign. Narrowly missing out on Champions League stung, but most people would not have imagined we would finish that close in the first year post-massive changes throughout all levels of the club.
But what was painfully obvious last season was our over-reliance on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals to see us through. What is even more potentially damning after the Newcastle result, is that it’s a trend that was still evident and glaring.
Per Understat, we managed just eight chances against Steve Bruce’s deep blocks, four of which fell to Aubameyang. Its is one thing to highlight your most gifted natural goalscorer in the team, but a balance must be struck.
Apart from PEA, the most chances fell to none other than Granit Xhaka, who accounted for another two chances on top of the Gabonese forwards four. This is certainly not good enough. Countless times last season we struggled to find the back of the net when Auba was shut down, or when Lacazette was regularly double-marked through the middle.
The need for a wide player who could bring an additional goal threat, while being confident with taking players on, was vital to the way we could perform this season. This is where Pépé – in theory – could work in spades.
Averaging 3.19 Sh90 last term at Lille, a 0.52 xG90, and an xG Chain90 of 0.67, Arsenal’s financial gamble on Pépé is one that provides a much-needed – and genuine – attacking threat from the flank for the first time in years.
Pépé, Auba, and the necessity of being direct
If our over-reliance on Aubameyang is evident (and it really is), the nature of our chance creation is even more troubling.
Against Newcastle, creating only eight chances – regardless of selection issues – is low for a club of our stature. But building on that, the numbers behind this paint a picture that many of us have been clamouring for us to buy at auction for some time.
Of the eight chances registered, four came via possession-based play, while two were crafted in a direct sequence. Would it surprise any of us to note that our xG when being direct (0.59) was more than double that of when we wanted to build play (0.26)? Not one bit.
For quite some time now, there have been many to press the issue of the need for us to return to a brand of football that is more direct, while still requiring our players to be of a requisite level of technical ability. Modern football, with a bit of throwback to the Invincibles.
Naturally, a more effective press goes hand-in-hand with the adaptation of our approach (another discussion for another time), but a look across the entirety of the first-team squad easily reveal s players who thrive in more direct scenarios.
Auba over the entirety of his career, Özil at Real and Werder Bremen, Lacazette in large parts of his Olympique Lyonnais days, and indeed, Pépé at Lille, all shine when a better tactical balanced is prescribed from the touchline.
To say nothing of the fact of how well the likes of Xhaka, Ceballos, Willock, and Nelson, as well as the acquisition of such an astute ball-playing centre back like Luiz, all point to most of our top-level talent begging for our approach to be tweaked.
What has come and gone can once again
We can never forget or discount the fluid nature of football. Forever changing over time, what we see week-in week-out in the Premier League is not what transpired a decade ago. But it is important to note that clues can lay in what came before you.
Without the need to always invoke memories of the Invincibles era, the current crop at Arsenal are capable of producing the same level of rip-roaring, crowd mesmerizing football laden with superb end product.
Looking up north, two clubs in Manchester and Liverpool are currently running the table in terms of the level of attacking football that is possible on English shores, much in the same way Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal did in its pomp.
Unai Emery may not be from the same mould, but as a self-proclaimed tinkerman, the onus falls at the Spaniard’s feet regarding how he is to be remembered in these parts. It remains to be seen if he is willing to adapt to who he has at his disposal, but one thing is for certain; he has the players to create something special on the pitch. The acquisition of Nicolas Pépé may well be the final piece to the attacking jigsaw puzzle.