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Arsenal 2 - Newcastle 0 match report: good things come to those who wait

90 minutes of yuck. 15 minutes of brilliance.

Arsenal v Newcastle United - FA Cup Third Round Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Most of today’s Arsenal-Newcastle FA Cup 3rd round match was a turgid affair. Arsenal looked toothless. Newcastle looked leggy, which is to be expected from a side that is on the back-end of a COVID-19 outbreak and the busy Christmas period. Eventually, the Gunners’ quality carried the day, even though it took until the second half of extra time.

Arsenal wound up scoring two lovely goals to secure a place in the 4th round and continue their FA Cup defense. Both were lovely, team goals. The first was a Bukayo Saka chip, an Alexandre Lacazette layoff, and a top-notch Emile Smith Rowe finish. The second was a great Granit Xhaka through-ball, a lovely Kieran Tierney cross, and a tougher-than-it-looked Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finish.

But the Gunners nearly didn’t make it to extra time; Newcastle almost snatched it at the death. Bernd Leno made a magnificent save on Andy Carroll, scrambled to take the rebound off another attacker’s foot, and dove to cover the loose ball and kill the danger. Top class goalkeeping, that.

A few more observations from the Arsenal goals:

  • Emile Smith Rowe and Alexandre Lacazette play really well together. ESR’s movement and Lacazette’s deft flicks / hold-up play combine well and have helped jumpstart the Arsenal attack over the last few matches. Right now, the best attack formation Mikel Arteta can deploy has Lacazette through the middle with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left.
  • That was one heckuva shot from Smith Rowe. Dubravka came off his line quickly, cut down the angle well, and gave him very little to shoot at. ESR found the space and kissed it off the inside of the far post. For my money, he’s one of the first names on the team sheet for the foreseeable future.
  • And let’s not forget Bukayo Saka, who was also involved on the first goal. It was his chip into Lacazette that started the move. Because of course it was. These days, if Arsenal have scored, there is a very good chance Saka contributed to the attack.
  • On the second goal, Arsenal recycled the ball really well to keep the attack alive. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s initial foray into the area fizzled, and he made the right choice to turn back and retain possession. He finish was a quality one, too. The ball from Kieran Tierney was a good one, but it was slightly behind Aubameyang. He did well to do a little half-skip, drag his foot, and guide it in. Great to see him back amongst the goals. As I said after the West Brom match, if he keeps getting himself into good positions and attacking the six-yard box, the goals will come.
  • Lovely pick-out from Granit Xhaka to spring Tierney to start the scoring move. There will be plenty said about Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe changing the match when they came on, but Xhaka made a big difference as well. He’s been playing quite well recently, and I think some of that has to do with ESR finding spaces for Xhaka to get him the ball. Xhaka has always been well above-average passer, but passing is a two-way street. You’ve got to find and hit them well, but that’s only half of it. Teammates have to show for the ball, too.
  • I said Tierney’s pass was “good, but slightly behind” Aubameyang. That’s not meant to take anything away from Tierney. He put in another solid shift and has created the most chances of anyone at the club this season. That’s a couple good games on the trot for him, which is encouraging because he’d looked a bit off a few weeks ago.

The biggest downside from today’s match was another abject performance from Willian. He just doesn’t have it anymore, unfortunately. I was fine with him starting today — these are the type of matches you’d like to see him play, if only to give other guys a rest. But his touch was off, his set piece delivery was poor, and he just looks slow. There really isn’t anything positive to say about it.

I thought both Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson, despite not covering themselves in glory, played fine and showed flashes. Pepe’s dribbling was better today, and he worked himself free for a shot a few times. He didn’t get the shots right, but they were high difficulty attempts. It’s also tough for me to criticize him too heavily when he’s got Cedric Soares for support down his flank and the attack is generally flowing down the opposite side anyway. Nelson was hesitant to shoot a few times, which is surprising given how quickly he pulled the trigger inside the first minute, but when you’re a last minute replacement into the starting lineup, you get a pass from me.

Nelson came into the lineup for Gabriel Martinelli, who turned his ankle in warmup. Martinelli was shown on the bench in a walking boot, which hopefully was just precautionary. The club said as much when they announced the late switch. Hopefully it’s nothing serious for Gabi.

That’s four wins in a row for Arsenal, something they hadn’t managed all season (unless you count the Community Shield). Thomas Partey is nearly back, and Gabriel Magalhaes should be good to go for Thursday’s Premier League match home to Crystal Palace. The Gunners then play host to Newcastle again next weekend. Arsenal find out their FA Cup 4th round opponent on Monday.