Aubemeyang gives Arsenal boost
After Thursday night’s fiasco it’s pretty safe to say Arsenal experiment with a false nine was a disaster.
That is meant as no slight on Emile Smith Rowe who worked manfully in the unfamiliar position, but the England under-21 international looked totally lost in a position he had never played before at senior level.
Without a focal point to their attack the Gunners struggled to press and on the occasions where they were able to work quick ball into the box there was no one central to take up the chances created.
The only saving grace for Mikel Arteta in making that potentially costly tactical decision in the biggest game of Arsenal’s season so far is that he kind of had to do it out of necessity given the absences of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
It’s not as if the Gabon international was at his scintillating best. For much of the game he looked slightly off the pace which is understandable given that it was his first start after more or less a month out with malaria.
But despite the obvious fatigue on show the 31-year-old’s reflexive ability to find space in the box did not desert him.
Aubameyang’s link up play was decent and with a central focal point to their attack Arsenal looked far more dangerous when they shifted the ball wide to the likes of Martinelli and Hector Bellerin on either flank.
With Lacazette “very unlikely” to make Thursday’s second leg against Villarreal, Mikel Arteta was quick to admit after the game that having a senior centre forward available and fit for the match was a huge relief.
“Yeah, we thought he wasn’t going to manage it on Thursday, two days before he was struggling,” said the Spaniard of his captain’s speedy recovery from illness.
“He could only manage to play 10 or 15 minutes. The day after he started to feel better.
“It’s good to see he was fine today. He scored a goal, he played well so it’s a real boost.”
As Arsenal prepare for a game in which they simply must score on Thursday having their best striker firing, if not fully fit, is a massive weight off Arteta’s shoulders.
Luiz’s devastating blow
In his assessment of what was a good afternoon for Arsenal, Mikel Arteta was almost entirely positive save for one thing.
“Yeah, apart from David’s injury that’s what we wanted,” he said of the match at St. James’ Park.
The Brazilian was making his return from minor surgery on his knee that had kept him out for the whole of April, and having him back gave the Gunners a totally different option as they tried to play out from the back.
Luiz‘s impeccable passing range was fully on display as he found Hector Bellerin down the right in the build up to Mohamed Elneny‘s early opener, while his crossfield balls to Gabriel Martinelli allowed the 19-year-old space to threaten down the left flank in the first half.
The 34-year-old was also a real threat from set pieces and it seemed with this performance that he was surely on his way to securing a start against the manager who signed him for Arsenal on Thursday.
Then just seven minutes into the second half disaster struck.
As Luiz went to play another one of his searching diagonal switches forward he pulled up and immediately clutched his left hamstring.
It was a devastating blow for the Brazilian who had worked so hard to be fit for the run-in of Arsenal’s season.
“We don’t know,” said Arteta when asked if this spelled the end of the experienced centre half’s season.
“He felt something in his hamstring so it’s not good news.
“He’s put such a shift to be back with the team for the last few weeks after the knee surgery, and it’s real a shame.”
With his contract set to expire at the end of the season there is a high chance that that gut-wrenching slow walk off will be the last time he is on the field in an Arsenal shirt.
A cruel way to possibly end what has been a rollercoaster two years.
Bellerin gives Arteta another headache
As he prepares his side for Thursday’s match against Villarreal, Mikel Arteta faces plenty of selection headaches.
Does he reward Mat Ryan‘s fine recent form with a start? Does he play Gabriel or Pablo Mari at left centre back? How does he cope in the likely absence of Kieran Tierney? And that’s just in the back line…
A fresh defensive dilemma presented itself for the Spaniard at St. James’ Park though in the shape of a revitalised performance from Hector Bellerin.
The 25-year-old started the season well but tailed off recently to the extent that he lost his place in the starting line up first to Cedric and then to Calum Chambers.
In the past two Europa League games it has been the England international who has started on the right of Arsenal’s defence showing an offensive willingness that has been sorely lacking from Bellerin’s game.
On Sunday though the Spaniard looked back to the thrilling attacking right back that excited fans so much when he burst onto the scene in the 2014/15 season.
There was obviously the involvement in the first goal where his pacey run in behind the Newcastle back line led to the cross that eventually found its way to Elneny, but that attacking threat continued throughout the game.
Instead of drifting inside as much Bellerin was willing to get to the by-line and exploit the space in behind the Magpies left wing back Matt Ritchie.
He could well have added a goal to his tally also as his blistering pace was on full display during a counter attack midway through the second half which ended with a shot that Paul Dummett was just able to get across to block.
Arteta has shown the Arsenal players that if they play well in Premier League matches then they will be included in the far more important games in the Europa League, and based on this display there is a high chance that Bellerin may just have worked his way into his manager’s plans come Thursday.
Martinelli makes his case
We’ve spoken about the impressive displays of Aubameyang, Luiz and Bellerin, but the undoubted man of the match at St. James’ Park was Gabriel Martinelli.
The Brazilian’s willingness to either cut inside on his right or go to the by-line on his left meant that Josh Murphy had an afternoon he will want to forget in a hurry.
It’s the intensity and directness that Martinelli brings each time he steps on the pitch that excites fans the most about him.
As well as impressing on the left, the 19-year-old showed some good stuff when moving central towards the very end of the game, and it was this versatility that drew the praise of his manager.
“I think they all played really well. Gabi’s improving every week,” said Arteta.
“He’s taking his minutes in the right way. He’s developing in the way we all believe he can.
“Today he had an assist (for Aubameyang’s goal), some good moments on the left and trying to play him as no.9 as well.”
With performances like this it seems to become stranger and stranger that the 19-year-old is not starting the more important games Arsenal have each season.
After he started from the bench against Villarreal on Thursday night, Martin Keown suggested the reason for this was that Arteta maybe didn’t like him.
After Sunday’s game though the Spaniard took it upon himself to dispel those rumours and provide the closest thing to explanation of his reluctance to use Martinelli for much of this campaign.
“Yeah, it’s a connection there” he told the press.
“Having Granit behind him helps him because he’s more in the last line on the left when he’s more comfortable. With Kieran it’s different. Those are relationships we have to build.
“Any doubt guys, I love Gabi so much more than all of you together.”
The highlighting of Xhaka’s importance in Martinelli’s impressive display is interesting to note there.
The Swiss international covered at left back once again and could be heard more or less coaching Martinelli throughout the game constantly shouting “Gabi go,” “stay” and offering encouragement where required.
Xhaka’s inclination to drift central allowed the Brazilian to hold the width on the left that made him so hard to track.
Due to his aggressive overlapping runs Tierney tens to occupy these spaces in the left channel himself which perhaps is why Arteta hasn’t seen fit to play the two together on the same flank very often.
Despite all his good play at St. James’ Park though it is now difficult to see exactly where Martinelli comes into the team to start at the Emirates on Thursday.
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If you consider the stunning display Nicolas Pepe put in last week then it’s safe to assume that he will start on the left meaning that if Martinelli is going to impact Arsenal’s biggest game of the season, he will probably have to do so from the bench.
It’s harsh after such an excellent display but on a night where the Gunners will need to score goals, knowing they have a player with the attacking talent of the young Brazilian to call on will be a welcome boost.