Result: Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal
Competition: Premier League
Date: 11 August 2019
Venue: St James Park
Starting XI: Leno; Maitland-Niles, Chambers, Sokratis, Monreal; Guendouzi, Xhaka, Willock, Mkhitaryan, Nelson; Aubameyang
Subs: Martinez, David Luiz, Torreira, Ceballos, Pepe, Martinelli, Lacazette
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang opened his account for the season as Arsenal produced a disciplined performance to beat Newcastle United 1-0 at St James’ Park in our opening game of the new Premier League campaign.
The Gabon international’s tidy finish on 58 minutes was a moment of real quality in a game that was scrappy for long periods, not that it will bother Unai Emery whose side kept a clean sheet and took home the three points with a minimum of fuss.
A very low-key first half, played out in blustery and wet conditions, was marked by familiar flaws and glimpses of hope for the future.
Xhaka’s passing, so often our undoing in the recent past, was pretty wayward. On three occasions his attempts to move the ball quickly out of defence saw him find a Newcastle player which left us exposed. Thankfully, Monreal, Sokratis and Chambers all looked pretty sharp despite the efforts of Almiron and Joelinton. Alongside the Swiss, Guendouzi was much tidier although the Frenchman tends to be far less ambitious when he’s in possession.
On the right of midfield, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, selected over Nicolas Pepe who is still building his way up to full fitness, delivered another of his customary erratic performances. The Armenian was full of running and often found himself in decent positions but his decision making and final pass were repeatedly poor. He had a decent chance to put us in the lead on 23 minutes after Monreal found him with a cutback but he lashed over the bar.
Joe Willock ended the half with a 64% completion rate, but his energy was a real positive. He made a couple of great challenges in the centre of the park and was also desperate to push forward with lung-busting runs. Reiss Nelson found it tough to find space but by the end of the half he was linking up nicely with Monreal off the left flank.
Chances were few and far between for both sides. Joelinton bustled space to shoot straight at Leno and the German could only watch as Shelvey hammered against the post from the edge of the box. In a five minute flurry of home side pressure, Almiron was correctly booked for diving as he took a tumble seeking contact with Granit Xhaka.
At the other end, Aubameyang forced a save from Dubravka with a fierce shot on the diagonal having found space behind the defence. It was our only attempt of the half on target.
We looked far more urgent after the break. On 52 minutes a brilliant dart down the left channel by Aubameyang ended with his shot getting deflected over the bar. From the resulting corner, Xhaka’s flicked headed whipped just past Willock’s outstretched foot and the post.
Six minutes later, our pressure finally told. Brilliant work by Ainsley Maitland-Niles saw our right-back pickpocket the ball on the halfway line, burst forward and then pick out Auba with a brilliant cross. The striker, who’d done well to time his run, took one touch and dinked the ball over the keeper. It was his 33rd goal in 50 Premier League appearances; an amazing record. (1-0)
Having resisted the temptation to make half-time changes, Emery finally looked to his very strong bench for reinforcements. Ceballos came on for Willock and took up a central position and six minutes later Pepe replaced Nelson. Mkhitaryan shifted to the left so he could go right.
Newcastle’s introduction of Saint-Maximin briefly brought the home fans to their feet, but aside from leaving one on Xhaka’s ankle, we coped with the Frenchman’s presence. For a ground feted for its atmosphere, St James’ Park was strangely quiet although Xhaka did bring out a roar for a foul of his own. He went in the book.
For long swathes of the second period, the game was very scrappy. It was only in the final 10 minutes as legs got tired that space appeared. Leno got down to his right to deny Saint-Maximin, Pepe probed, Martinelli came on for his debut in place of Mkhitaryan and Schar pelted over the bar from 35-yards.
Credit to our mix-and-match defence holding firm in the final minutes to pick up a clean sheet. We had to wait until April to do that away from home last season. So it’s three very welcome points and a week to prepare for the visit of Burnley. 2019/20 is off to a solid start.