Arsenal continue building under Unai Emery as Lucas Torreira helps spark win at Newcastle
NEWCASTLE, England -- Three points from St. James' Park on Newcastle 1-2 Arsenal in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
1. Arsenal build momentum under Emery
Slowly but surely, the Unai Emery revolution is building some useful momentum. This was Arsenal's third consecutive win under the Spaniard, and while it was hardly flashy, it is surely a positive sign they are picking up points during a period of such flux. Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil, the former with a fine free kick scored early in the second half, was enough to defeat a toothless Newcastle side. The hosts found an added-time consolation via Ciaran Clark but will be relieved that a torrid run of fixtures has finally come to an end.
Newcastle, pressing higher than at any point in the season so far, made all the early running. Jacob Murphy raced into the space behind Hector Bellerin in the ninth minute, but with two men waiting in the middle, his cross was hacked away. Jamaal Lascelles' header was then cleared inside the six-yard box with Ayoze Perez waiting to pounce, and at that point Arsenal were undergoing a barrage of deliveries from either flank.
Midway through the half, Petr Cech had to paw away a far-post header from the unmarked Murphy, with Joselu awaiting a tap-in. The sum total of Arsenal's attacking endeavours in the opening half hour was a harmless Alexandre Lacazette shot into the side netting; when Aaron Ramsey finally found a good position deep inside the area shortly afterwards, he slipped and ballooned a cross-shot wildly off target. They had stabilised by the end of the half, Hector Bellerin seeing one dangerous centre from the byline hurriedly cleared.
Four minutes into the second half they took the lead with the game's first moment of quality -- and its first shot on target. Xhaka's free kick, fully 25 yards out, swung over the wall and curled away from Martin Dubravka into the top corner; it was a marvellous goal and quite out of step with what had preceded it.
Newcastle looked rattled and Arsenal doubled their lead nine minutes later. A fine move down the left flank resulted in a blocked shot from Lacazette; Ozil, on his 200th Arsenal appearance, converted the loose ball via the hand of a seemingly unsighted Dubravka.
There was little further threat from the hosts, whose fans were directing their anger at owner Mike Ashley long before the end, and the visitors retained a threat on the counter. Clark's last-gasp header gave late hope, but an afternoon that began awkwardly for Arsenal finished satisfactorily.
2. Emery's methods a work in progress as Torreira shows worth
What a transformation this was from Arsenal, who had toiled in a dreary first half. Xhaka's bolt from the blue might have turned the game on its axis, but the influence of another midfielder was equally important. Lucas Torreira was introduced in place of Matteo Guendouzi at half-time and Arsenal instantly improved. The Uruguayan is not an showy player but offers some simple qualities the Gunners have lacked: an ability to dictate from deep and step up the tempo, while showing enough awareness off the ball to tidy up in front of the back line.
Torreira, a whirl of perpetual motion when Arsenal were in possession, instantly gave them more authority and provided their defence with much-needed support. The latter point is crucial: he offered an easy, deep-lying outlet through which to recycle possession, cutting out many of the errors that had scarred their first half.
Two incidents in that opening period showed just how far Arsenal have to go before they can be a team firmly in Emery's image. The first, 11 minutes in, was an ill-fated attempt to build from the back that ended with Shkodran Mustafi passing hurriedly to an under-pressure Cech, who skewed the ball behind in a manner reminiscent of a high-profile blooper on the opening day against Manchester City. It was not Cech's fault; he had been put in a nearly impossible situation. The second involved Mustafi, too, with the centre-back inexplicably stumbling under a high ball and letting in Murphy, who was denied by a sharp recovery from Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
Both centre-backs looked panic under pressure and both conceded possession regularly; Emery wants his back four to build attacks, but they are simply not good enough on the ball and are too often forced backwards. That is where Torreira, giving them a simple option to play forwards, made a difference. He is yet to start a league game; surely that will not be the case for long.
3. Toothless Newcastle suffer in nightmare run of fixtures
In the end, Newcastle will rue their failure to put Arsenal to the sword when they were on top. They had the better of the first half but failed to create a clear-cut chance despite plenty of positive intent; it bred the sense that they would be punished, and Arsenal, with their superior quality, duly capitalised. The half-time replacement of their captain Lascelles by Clark, presumably through injury, hardly helped, and they will now hope a kinder run of games digs them out of their early-season hole.
The prematch noises in the Newcastle camp had been that Arsenal could be got at. Rafa Benitez certainly seemed to feel that way, abandoning the back three that had dug in for respectable -- but stodgy -- defeats against Chelsea and Manchester City and setting his team out on the front foot. They looked confident from the first whistle, Murphy finding plenty of room in the spaces vacated by Bellerin and Matt Ritchie's left foot causing trouble. Benitez had made four changes and Newcastle looked fresh, Mohamed Diame and Isaac Hayden winning the midfield battle in the first half.
But despite their zip and energy there was a glaring lack of quality. Newcastle lacked a passer in midfield, with Jonjo Shelvey confined to the bench here, while Joselu does not seem a satisfactory long-term option at centre-forward. They looked rudderless at the back without Lascelles, but Benitez will be particularly concerned by the fact that after going behind, they offered nothing. They visibly lost belief once Xhaka had scored, snatching at passes and clearances in the aftermath and offering Arsenal a platform to build upon their lead. Clark's goal, when it arrived, came too late and had never been on the cards.
It is hardly time to panic; Newcastle's fiendish start to the campaign has been well-documented, after all. But their haul of one point from five games heaps pressure upon their next two games, at Crystal Palace and at home to Leicester. They surely need to win at least one, but must rapidly discover a cutting edge that has so far been absent.