Newcastle United – Arsenal: Possession structures at the heart of both sides’ problems (0-1)
What might have seemed like an intriguing opening day fixture not so long ago quickly turned into something out of last season’s script. Arsenal’s struggles to penetrate compact defenses away from home proved to be a tough a test again. Were it not for Newcastle’s own structural problems, the visitors might well have come away disappointed.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Both clubs came through hectic summers to get to this point, with Newcastle being dealt huge blows very early on. They lost their much-beloved head coach Rafa Benítez, following the continuous breakdowns between him and the club’s owner. On top of this were the departures of two key attackers in the form of Ayoze Pérez and, inevitably, Salomón Rondón, who had been at the club on loan; their goal tallies combined made up over half of all of Newcastle’s goals in the previous league campaign.
In an attempt to compensate for such losses, Newcastle replaced Rafa with Steve Bruce – who had not managed in the Premier League since 2015 – and brought in TSG Hoffenheim’s breakout star Joelinton (44 million euros), OGC Nice winger Allan Saint-Maximin (18 million euros) and former star Andy Carroll on a free to re-bolster the attack.
Arsenal suffered fewer losses like these, but they were nonetheless very busy. A summer which began with the departures of a number of players out of contract ended with the club breaking their transfer record to bring in Lille OSC star Nicolas Pépé (80 million euros), as well as a plethora of other players who helped to massively strengthen the side across the board.
Unfortunately, none of those additions made it into the starting eleven due to their respective fitness levels and because of how recently a number of those players joined the club. Even a number of pre-existing players were unavailable for varying reasons, meaning Unai Emery’s long road back to the Champions League was off to a bumpy start already.
Steve Bruce also left a number of his summer buys on the bench but gave a full home debut to Joelinton, who partnered Miguel Almirón up front as part of a 3-5-2 setup, which just so happened to mirror Emery’s 4-2-3-1 shape.
Arsenal display early frustration in their control of possession
Emery’s side began the new season as they ended the old one: with many passages of unsuccessful wide attacks. Choosing to play down the right side more to begin with, there were major limitations in their setup which forced right back Ainsley Maitland-Niles to constantly pump it down the flank, hoping to find one of the attackers running onto it.
What Arsenal was missing was a prominent inside link. The two holding midfielders were often too deep to get across in time, so, really, it should have been Joe Willock dropping into the open pocket inside but he was frequently pushed up alongside the attackers when he did not need to be.
Arsenal clearly missing the inside link to connect the passing from one flank to the other.
Eventually they switched it up and started to build up down the left, where they found some joy. Only some, though. What we saw more of on that side was Willock’s presence inside. As Granit Xhaka, the near-sided holding midfielder, kept Joelinton high up, it stretched open the space in front of Newcastle’s midfield trio.
Further ahead, the positioning of Reiss Nelson pinned back Fabian Schär, which allowed Willock to drop freely into the space to receive. Equally, there were times when the two youngsters switched roles but kept within the same lane to draw out Schär and exploit the vacant channel.
Arsenal’s left-sided setup, opening the lane inside to Willock, where they can quickly transition to the far-side.
This same sequence, a quarter of the way into the match, worked open the first chance of the match. Nelson’s position held open the space for Willock to drop, receive and lay it back to Xhaka. With some time on the ball, he perfectly picked out the run from deep by left back Nacho Monreal. And, since the host’s midfield had been drawn so high and narrow to the right side, they were unable to pressure the attacking options, giving Henrikh Mkhitaryan a free shot at goal on the cutback, which he blazed over.
That was as good as it got, though. Despite this sequence often granting them good access deep and to the side of Newcastle’s midfield, it was let down by the positioning of the players on that side. There was no width. Maitland-Niles was always deep and narrow with Mkhitaryan only just ahead of him. So, any transitions to the far-side were swiftly cut short.
Newcastle leaves themselves too stretched
In the short first-half spells when Newcastle had the ball, they were fairly one-dimensional in their attempts to progress. They were very much playing the long game, as Isaac Hayden made constant runs through the inside channels from deep.
What this often did was open up the space in front of the Arsenal defense for Almirón to invade. However, what came of these passages was very few and far in-between; either the long ball went out of play or was dealt with, or Almirón got the ball but had no options ahead, with Joelinton being tightly marked by both Arsenal center-backs.
Most significant about the way Newcastle attacked was the state they left themselves in against counterattacks. By having the three-man midfield be so narrow and stretched, particularly after those aforementioned movements, and a back-three so far deep in relation to the rest of the team, left them incredibly vulnerable following midfield turnovers.
This was only emphasized due to the high positioning of the Arsenal attackers since the closest players to them were the opposing center-backs, and not the opposing central-midfielders. So, when the Bruce’s men were dispossessed, even within these one-sided areas, they had no support from behind to instantly pressure the ball. Consequently, Nelson and Mkhitaryan, in particular, found lots of joy driving at the back-tracking defense.
In the thirty-first minute, Aubameyang was handed a great chance to test Martin Dúbravka. Following Willock’s backtracking challenge to dispossess Shelvey, Nelson’s instant pass across to Mkhitaryan was completely unchallenged. As the back-line continually retreated, Jamaal Lascelles’ slightly deeper positioning afforded Aubameyang just enough room to peel off the back of him and receive a smart ball over the top from the Armenian. A good take-down was followed by a rifled shot straight at the goalkeeper.
Newcastle exposed after midfield turnover due to overstretched verticality of their attacking structure.
Newcastle’s early second half domination throws up more problems
Bruce’s men assumed greater control of possession after the restart but seemingly at their peril. Arsenal’s frustration on the ball had grown even further towards the end of the opening period, so the change in control did not necessarily make much sense.
The same movements were on display here, except Joelinton was given more license to try and drop in to receive. He was never likely to be of much use, though, as the two connecting central midfielders were constantly running the channels, well beyond and away from any other teammates. It was a bit of a mess in truth. So many low percentage passes and so few short options – even less so than before. And, along with the much higher positioned midfielders came an even more vertically stretched shape.
Just shy of the hour mark, Arsenal finally punished the hosts.
Starting with a perfect example of how unavailable and narrow behind Arsenal’s midfield Newcastle’s forward players were, they were forced to shift it to the far-side. However, the narrowness of their shape proved to cost them in their attempts to find substitute wing-back Jetro Willems. The ball into him was doomed from the start as playing so long and wide into a player with no options around him, coming up against instant pressure could only force Willems one way: backwards. The ball itself turned out not to be good enough with Maitland-Niles interrupting the pass’ path. Driving forwards, Aubameyang was left wide open between Lascelles and Schär, after the former was foolishly drawn in by the movement in front of him. Taking it down beautifully before dinking over the goalkeeper, Aubameyang made the right-back’s peach of a cross his own. There was never any doubt how that scenario was going to end.
Attacking changes are all flash but no substance
The introduction of Saint-Maximin looked to inject Newcastle with some renewed energy and greater danger with the ball, but little such things occurred. Arsenal’s right-hand side did well to cope with the numerous situations they were thrown into against the winger. The frustration seeped into Newcastle’s attacks quickly as legs grew weary and the visitors began to tease them in possession. From there, it was straightforward for Arsenal to recycle the ball within the final third and claim an important 1-0 victory.
This was not a particularly exciting match but it was an interesting early litmus test, not only for the two teams, but also for some of the players. Reiss Nelson was a standout, as was Joelinton, who handled himself incredibly well on his debut.
Down to brass tacks, Newcastle matched suspicions that it will probably take some doing for them to survive this season, even with some of the eye-catching attacking options they boast. Meanwhile, Emery can be more than pleased with an away win and clean sheet, having had to put out a very weak side, missing a number of starters, new and old.
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