It was a scrappy game played in conditions that didn’t really suit Arsenal’s preferred style of football, but critically, Unai Emery’s side managed to overcome Newcastle United to get their Premier League campaign off to a decent start.
The starting eleven omitted any of the new signings, although the bench was stuffed with every new face that was not injured. Three of them eventually got some action. The selection of Calum Chambers ahead of David Luiz was an eye opener, although there were questions over the match fitness of the arrival from Chelsea. Defensively, Arsenal limited their opponents’ chances, and calamitous mistakes were not committed, although both Granit Xhaka and later Dani Ceballos’ sailed a little too close to the wind in passing to the opposition too close to their own penalty area for comfort. Generally though, the back four played with discipline, with both full backs frequently aiding the attack. Of course, when assessing the degree of their resilience, the quality of the opposition needs to be remembered. I do feel that Newcastle already look like a team that will be involved in a relegation tussle.
The last time more than two Academy developed players began a game for Arsenal was apparently 1998. Unai Emery fielded Maitland-Niles, Willock and Nelson to give us a taste of what needs to be a more fundamental part of the plan – using homegrown. All played well enough, Maitland-Niles the standout of the three, with an assist for Aubameyang’s second half winner after intercepting a Newcastle attack. Up until that point, the final ball was too often found wanting. Given the mix and match nature of the side, a degree of uncertainty was inevitable.
The new players came on one by one, and in fairness didn’t make a significant impact on the game. It’s early days, and all three, none of whom with any Premier League experience, will need a few games to find their feet. With this in mind, Emery’s decision to start with players that were already established at the club looks a good one. It’s not been an ideal summer in terms of preparing the squad for the season for a number of reasons. The Copa America, African Cup of Nations and Euro U-21 tournaments will effect other clubs as well. Emery’s challenge is to integrate everyone as smoothly and quickly as possible and hope that the injured players can return before too long. In all honesty, it does feel like the matches against Liverpool and Spurs will come too early, although if Emery can field Torreira and Lacazette from the start, the team will be stronger. We wait to see how long it will be before Pepe and Ceballos are starting league matches.
So, not easy to conclude too much from this game except that Aubameyang has not lost his ability to fashion chances and convert enough to win points. But most important of all is that Arsenal took the three points. They really need to try and take as close to 60 points as is possible this season from the 20 matches against the teams that will finish in the bottom half of the table, of which Newcastle will surely be one.
One final prediction – in years to come, Arsenal’s starting eleven might be the subject of one of those fill in the blank team formations. It was a curate’s egg of a line-up, but it did the job. Seven of the players might not figure in Emery’s strongest starting line-up, so credit to the manager and the squad for securing the points yesterday.