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Arsenal v. Newcastle United: pressure makes diamonds

But will it be the Gunners or the Magpies that shine?

Arsenal FC v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsenal host Newcastle United at the Emirates this evening in a clash at the top of the Premier League table. The Gunners will look to extend their lead at the top. The Magpies will try to reel them in. People may have circled this match on the schedule at the start of the season as an important one for both clubs, but it was probably as a key contest in the top four race. I don’t think anybody expected it to be a matchup between 1st and 3rd.

As I’ve written elsewhere, today’s match feels like a kitchen sink game for Newcastle. A loss sends them 12 points adrift of Arsenal, and both the Gunners and Manchester City have a game in hand, albeit against each other. The flip side is if Newcastle win, they move to within 6 points of first. Eddie Howe’s side are going to throw everything they’ve got at Mikel Arteta’s bunch today.

Arsenal, on the other hand, will be out for revenge. The Gunners had the inside track for a Champions League place last season when they visited Saint James’ Park. Arsenal fell flat on their face and were convincingly beaten. For today’s matchday program, Martin Ødegaard said, “Our defeat against them last season was definitely one of the worst days we’ve had in recent seasons. It was the day we missed out on the UCL. Everyone is really looking forward to this one. We’re fully determined to show a different side compared to that last game.”

Three keys to the match: the midfield battle, transitions, and defense. Last spring, Bruno Guimaraes and Joelinton controlled the middle of the pitch against Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny, which essentially decided the game. Will Thomas Partey, who missed that match through injury, be enough to at least balance that out? I think so, especially when combined with Martin Ødegaard’s excellent current form.

Newcastle, like Arsenal, want to attack quickly. They don’t sit deep enough, at least for me, to be considered a counterattacking team. They’re direct. Wherever they regain possession, defensive, middle, or attacking third, they want to create a shooting opportunity off the back of it. If the Gunners can gum up the middle of the pitch and force Newcastle to create chances against a settled defensive shape rather than in the chaos following a turnover, I think they’ll win. Newcastle do a lot of things well, but breaking down a defensive block isn’t one of them.

Defending, on the other hand, is something Eddie Howe’s side does quite well. Newcastle have the best defense in the Premier League on goals against (11). Arsenal have the second-best defense by that same measure (14). The Magpies have significantly outperformed their expected goals against, however, conceding more than seven goals fewer than you’d expect so far this season. Arsenal have conceded precisely as many as you’d expect.

When two clubs that defend that well play each other, the difference is usually one of two things: individual brilliance or a mistake. I give Arsenal the edge in individual brilliance potential. They have more top-end talent capable of producing a moment of magic. The Gunners also have more potential for mistakes at the back. William Saliba has looked rusty and made judgment errors in two consecutive matches, and Gabriel Magalhaes’ aggressiveness in the middle third occasionally takes him too far out of position to recover.

Arsenal will be without Gabriel Jesus and Reiss Nelson. Emile Smith Rowe was a full participant in training yesterday, so he may be fit enough for the matchday squad [UPDATE: not in the matchday squad]. Newcastle will be without Alexander Isak, Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Targett, Emil Krafth and Paul Dummett.

It should be a fantastic match. I’m excited.

Arsenal - Ramsdale, Zinchenko, Gabriel, Saliba, White, Partey, Xhaka, Ødegaard, Martinelli, Saka, Nketiah

Newcastle - Pope, Trippier, Schar, Botman, Burn, Bruno, Longstaff, Willock, Almiron, Joelinton, Wilson

WHAT: Arsenal vs Newcastle United
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
WHEN: Tuesday, January 3rd 11:45 am PT | 2:45pm ET | 7:45pm BT
HOW TO WATCH: USA Network. Streaming on