Heading into the international break without a win on the board was far from ideal for Newcastle United, but looking at the fixture list, and considering all the issues the club has been through this summer, it arguably was expected. The harsh nature of the Premier League is in evidence again this weekend, as Unai Emery’s Arsenal head to St James‘ Park on Saturday afternoon.
Rafael Benitez can hit his stride in these games, despite often receiving criticism for his cautious approach to them. Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City have all beaten Newcastle this season, but they were all made to work very hard for their results, and the Magpies may have a case for deserving more in at least two of those matches. Staying compact and playing on the counter attack worked well last season, though, with Manchester United, Chelsea and, crucially, Arsenal all leaving the North East empty handed in the second half of the campaign, as Newcastle rallied to finish tenth. Emery’s Arsenal are a different proposition to the side Arsene Wenger put out in April; having won their first away game of the season against Cardiff a fortnight ago, they are looking to put together a good run on the road. Defensive frailties are still an issue, but the Spaniard’s impact on the team has been greater than reported. The Gunners will arrive with a plan, and keeping them quiet will be a tough ask for Newcastle’s backline, which is still yet to settle down after a knee injury to Florian Lejuene in the summer.
Although it is clear that Emery has improved Arsenal early on this season, the most impressive thing about them has been the continuation of something Wenger came up with in the away game at Newcastle five months ago. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s record-breaking move to the Emirates Stadium from Borussia Dortmund in January gave the former boss a conundrum to solve after Alexandre Lacazette’s summer switch from Lyon. He took his time in finding a way to get them both on the pitch, but playing Aubameyang on the left and Lacazette down the middle has really worked; the pair have since built up a great rapport with one another. The presence of Aubameyang out wide will give DeAndre Yedlin something to think about, and Lacazette will then enjoy more space if the right-back cannot get closer to Jamaal Lascelles and either Fabian Schär or Federico Fernandez, who are vying for the spot alongside the Newcastle captain at the heart of the defence.
Yedlin has endured a tough start to the season and is clearly being targeted as a weak link by opposing managers. Emery will be no different, he will know Aubameyang, who gave the American a tough time the last time they met, can get in behind him just as Dele Alli did on the opening day of the season and Eden Hazard did in the last match on Tyneside. The Gabonese striker must be commended for his selfless outlook; there aren’t many players who would accept playing out of position if they joined as the most expensive signing ever made by a club months earlier, but he appears to have recognised the impact he is having on the team and, particularly, Lacazette. Signing Aubameyang was predicted to unsettle the Frenchman, but, ironically, it has kickstarted his career in English football.
In many ways, their linkup is very similar to that of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse at Newcastle six years ago; Ba, the top scorer with 15 goals when his Senegal teammate arrived in January 2012, shifted wide to accomodate Cisse, who went on to score 13 goals as Alan Pardew’s men almost qualified for the Champions League. It didn’t work out in the end, with Ba voicing his displeasure at his new position. If the same happens with Aubameyang, it could cause trouble, but until then, Arsenal are going to be a big threat going forward. Yedlin‘s defensive positioning could easily be capitalised on, and after the Arsenal man proved to be the fastest player in their squad after tests, the race between them down Newcastle’s right-hand side will be very interesting.
Regarding injuries, Newcastle could be boosted by the return of both Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie, who were missing against City. They have trained this week, and Benitez has said decisions will be made; if they are fit, it will likely mean a return to four defenders, and give Arsenal’s defence more questions to answer. Kenedy also returns to St James’ Park after sitting out against parent club Chelsea, and he really needs a big performance after a slow start to the season.
Emery and Benitez know each other well, and this will be a very interesting clash. Both teams are strong in certain areas but weak in others, and there could be goals, too. Newcastle will be happy to get another point on the board, after their draw at Cardiff last month; they will be a tough nut to crack, and even with Aubameyang and Lacazette in form, Arsenal could struggle to break them down.
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