Tactical Points from Arsenal’s second-half drubbing of Newcastle
By Mac Johnson
Another week, another writer! I’m frankly ecstatic for the opportunity to join Vinay and Alfie in writing our beloved tactical points. However, unlike Alfie last week, I have the distinct joy of reporting tactical points on a wonderful game to watch. Or, I should say, a wonderful 45 minutes. The first half was dead. That doesn’t mean it won’t get its time in the sun though. Onto the tactical points:
The xG difference between the first and second halves could not have been more stark. Newcastle maintained a 0.16 xG for the game, but Arsenal transformed 0.83 from the first half into 2.58 for the match. It truly was a game of two halves, and the importance of Mikel Arteta’s team talk cannot be overstated. We looked entirely disorganised in the first half, but our second half performance was cohesive and direct. We deserved everything we got, if not more.
Granit Xhaka performs very well against the low block when he has somebody supporting him in the midfield. When he plays as the deepest member of a midfield, or in a “creative pair” with Dani Ceballos, he cannot step forward enough to play between the lines, limiting his effectiveness in possession. With the more athletic and defensive-minded Thomas Partey behind him, he had the confidence to step up into a playmaking role, and both play and press higher. It shields his lack of mobility too.
On that note, the inside-right creative role was filled by both Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe alternatively, and they filled the space which would be ordinarily filled by Dani Ceballos. With Partey playing deeper and recycling the ball, our two wonder-kids had the space to create freely, which they did with aplomb against a tiring Newcastle midfield.
Vertical passes and direct play were the hallmarks of our second-half success. We spent less total time in our half in the second 45, but by passing between our defenders until the Newcastle front line committed to pressing higher, we were able to play around and through the low block Steve Bruce tried to implement. Despite the fact that our tempo was mostly unchanged—we played nearly the whole game at 75% tempo—our efficiency on the ball nearly tripled.
Kieran Tierney brought balance to the line-up again. His presence on the left flank, and his ability to drive down the touchline, created space on the inside channels for Aubameyang, and although our captain was incapable of completing a dribble on the night, the increased attacking threat on the left made the space for both of his goals. The Scotsman also gave Xhaka a reliable outlet on the rare occasions he got caught under heavy pressure.
Aubameyang is the recipient of Arsenal’s success, not the creator of it. In all honesty, he was relatively poor on the night, and missed an early chance he really should have scored. His goals weren’t the product of a change in his confidence, he just used his rather prodigious talent for attacking movement to pop up in the right spaces, which were created by his teammates constant movement off the ball.
Lack of fatigue within the line-up is key. Resting a leggy Hector Bellerin, while questionable on the surface, actually worked wonders for Arsenal. The comparatively fresh Cedric had a bumper day on the right flank, dangling a number of delicious crosses, and bagging a thunderbolt of an assist for Aubameyang. For what’s more, while Tierney wasn’t quite fit and played a more conservative match, he was still able to influence the game heavily, and looked nothing like the dogged, bone-tired player we saw in our last fixture against the Magpies.
Short corners should continue. We had a number of decent crosses from open play in the squad, and looked to create a number of chances at the back post during the second half, but Bukayo Saka’s corners continually failed to beat the first man. Now that we’re not relying on crosses as our primary mode of creating chances, they can be a very useful tool in testing a defense from different angles.
It’s important to consider the ability of the opponent. Newcastle are a side in turmoil, winless in their last nine. We have an aggregate score of 5-0 over them in our last two matches. Arsenal played well today, but against a stauncher opponent—read Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace—we would not have the same level of success. However, the ability to make lower-quality opponents look worse than they are is a long-standing trait of Big Six clubs, and it’s a trait Arsenal are relearning slowly.
The time for utility players has ended somewhat. With Xhaka, Saka, and Smith Rowe tasked solely with the job of creating chances, we were able to spread the ball around far more effectively than against Crystal Palace. When Ceballos and Xhaka play together, they split defensive and attacking duties between themselves, and arguably spread themselves too thin, putting more creative strain on the kids. Given more concrete roles today, our midfield was far more effective at creating chances, as evidenced by our xG.
The biggest difference between the two halves was our ability to play through the press, rather than around it. Arsenal have looked the least effective this season when we limit our play to the flanks, through an apparent fear of taking chances. Luckily, we’re no longer Risk-Free FC, and took enough attacking chances to unsettle Newcastle’s low block.
Overall, it was a stellar second half performance from the Gunners, mostly because they were able to solve their own problems within the context of a single match. We looked tactically astute, and were able to use superior possession numbers to our advantage, something this Arsenal team has often failed to do. If Arsenal can continue this trend, things might be looking seriously up.