Lacking Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Jack Wilshere, Arsenal struggled to create against Newcastle side that played deep and narrow. Newcastle are a good defensive side, conceding the 5th least shots last season, but worryingly Arsenal looked like they did for most of last season: slow and sluggish. With the high amount of possession and over 600 passes, it was possession without penetration, or what Arsene Wenger accused of Barcelona last year, sterile domination. Despite the draw, there are positive aspects to take from Arsenal's peformance.
Arsenal usually play a 4-2-3-1, with a 2-1 in the midfield, meaning there's a double pivot. However, with Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby all unavailable, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey both started. This pre-season, without Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal have played a 4-1-2-3, with no double pivot. Jack Wilshere has been given a bigger creative role, breaking forward as Aaron Ramsey likes to control the midfield from deep, with Wilshere quite often going past Robin van Persie as he drops deeper. However, neither Rosicky nor Ramsey took that space in the first half, and van Persie didn't drop deep, meaning Arsenal were very static. In the second half, van Persie began to drop deeper and link up with the midfield, and Ramsey began to drive forward, but Arsenal were missing Wilshere's creative spark; Rosicky and Ramsey were both like passers, spreading the play, but not creating. OPTA stats will show Ramsey created 3 chances, which isn't bad, but as the Chalkboard below shows, the two of Rosicky and Ramsey, and Arsenal as a whole, didn't make enough attacking passes in the final third, and in the penalty area. The tippy-tappy around the edge of the box that frustrates so many pundits wasn't occurring. The lack of a double pivot also caused Song to have more defensive responsibility, leading to some confusion. Song was still getting forward, and thus, without a partner, was getting caught out on counter attacks and stretched. Song only won 50% of his tackles, quite below his figure of 77% last season, and also conceded 4 fouls, and got booked. As he became more comfortable being the sole defensive midfielder, his performance improved, and one of Aaron Ramsey or Tomas Rosicky dropped a little deeper to help out. It was still a 1-2, but it relieved some pressure on Song.
We bemoaned the lack of width in Arsenal's attack plenty of times last season, and so against Newcastle, the wideness of Arsenal's play was somewhat refreshing. Both Gervinho and Andrey Arshavin got in behind the Newcastle defence, but today the final ball wasn't good enough. Gervinho can be frustratingly inconsistent according to scouting reports of him, and so judgment based on today's game can be harsh. Andrey Arshavin's final ball was poor too, except for one glorious chip over the Newcastle back 4 for Robin van Persie when Arshavin moved into a central position. A further problem was the lack of options in the middle to create once Gervinho and Arshavin stretched the play; as previously said, neither Ramsey or Rosicky exploited space, meaning Gervinho and Arshavin had to carry on into the box, instead of using the #10 to create.
Defending Set Pieces
Arsenal had an excellent day defensively. Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny showed what a good defensive partnership they are, lessening the calls for Arsene Wenger to buy a starting centre back. Their play on set pieces, in conjunction with Wojiech Szczesny was especially pleasing, as 3 of the 5 Newcastle goals scored against us last season resulted from set pieces. Utilising a zonal marking system, Newcastle only had 1 free kick won in the penalty box, while none of their corners successfully found a Newcastle's player head. For a defence that is much-maligned, it was a good showing of defensive nous that is routinely criticised.
The biggest problem from Saturday's match was the lack of creativity. Arsenal greatly missed Cesc Fabregas, and finding a replacement and getting Jack Wilshere back is something Arsene Wenger must do as soon as possible. Aaron Ramsey showed promise, but must be encouraged to take up a higher role and exploit space between the opposition defence and midfield. If Arsenal continue to defend like they did today and utilise the width and find more midfield creativity, which they should do easily, challenging for major honours this season is not out of the question.