(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
We’re through to round four of the FA Cup! After an ultimately underwhelming 90 minutes, Arsenal beat Newcastle 2-0 in extra time, thanks to late goals from Emile Smith Rowe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Not the most confident of victories, but we got the result we desired. Here’s a look at four things we learnt from yesterday’s match…
1. The youth taking charge.
For yesterday’s game, Mikel Arteta made the wise decision to bench Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka despite their recent successes, so they could rest for Arsenal’s next Premier League fixture against Crystal Palace on Thursday. The front four, instead, contained record signing Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Willian Borges (alongside Reiss Nelson). From this trio, you would expect a top class performance; a mixture of experience, flair and high expectations from fans would have put the triplet in place to show why they deserve to be starting in the league. However, this was far from the outcome. I think it is fairly safe to say that Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe are nailed on starters for Arsenal right now. The experienced front line offered very little throughout the game and were ultimately very poor, to the point where Pepe and Willian both got substituted off. Arteta had to rely on his younger players, who he would have wanted to stay rested for our upcoming games, to come on and change the game… which they did successfully. Bukayo Saka looked bright throughout, and was involved in Arsenal’s second goal with a lovely switch of play from the right flank into Aubameyang at the far post. But it was Smith Rowe who turned the game on its head, scoring with a tidy finish past Martin Dúbravka to put Arsenal through to the next round.
The likes of Nicolas Pepe and Willian need to take a long, hard look at what their younger teammates are doing and reflect that in their own game.
2. Emile Smith Rowe is essential.
Without the creativity of Emile Smith Rowe in the side, Arsenal looked like the team that we played before the start of our winning streak. There was no-one who could break the lines, take a risk or try to create something. We looked at most parts to be flat and uninspiring, bar the relentless Kieran Tierney (who created six chances from left back last night). Emile Smith Rowe came on and did exactly what he has done every time he has played. He worked hard defensively, was a constant threat on the ball and crowned a bright performance off with an incredible finish from a tight angle to win Arsenal the game.
One month ago, you would have thought Emile Smith Rowe would either be wasted on the bench, or sent on loan in the transfer window. Fast forward a month, he’s been given his opportunity, taken it with a firm grasp and is now surely one of the first names on the teamsheet.
3. Bernd Leno is a brick wall.
In his first ever FA Cup appearance, Bernd Leno, for much of the night, had little to do. Newcastle registered just two shots on target across the 120 minutes, due to a combination of poor finishing (10 shots off target) and steady defending from the Arsenal backline. But, when Andy Carrol was one-on-one with him in the dying seconds of the original 90′, Bernd Leno saved us from dropping out of the cup early. An incredible save, followed by a brave dive to reclaim the ball off the rebound. In the past few weeks, Bernd Leno has reminded everyone how good he is… and begun to show people why Mikel Arteta chose him to be our number one this season.
In his last four games, Bernd Leno has conceded just once, kept three clean sheets and saved a penalty. He currently ranks seventh of all players in the Premier League based off Sky Sports’ form chart. A man with a point to prove.
4. Defensively solid (again!)
After another clean sheet today, Arsenal have now gone over three hundred minutes without conceding a goal in all competitions. Yesterday’s centre back pairing of David Luiz and Pablo Mari were rock solid, allowing very little for the Newcastle front line. Pablo Mari in particular was exceptional: the Brazilian made 5 clearances, blocked 1 shot, made three interceptions, 4 tackles, won 8 duels and was steady on the ball, completing 73 passes. An all-round excellent performance from him, and another clean sheet to add to his record of four games, four wins and three clean sheets. He may, against fast-paced teams, not be the most suitable defender, but at just three and a half million he was an shrewd signing. His partner was also solid at the back; David Luiz rose to the challenge of holding off the physical Andy Carroll. Just two shots on target across 120 minutes is a fair reflection of just how secure our backline was for the most part.
Yesterday wasn’t a pretty win for Arsenal, but in the end we prevailed with qualification for the next round. Huge shout out to Emile Smith Rowe, Kieran Tierney and Pablo Mari, who I thought were our best three players on the night. A far from perfect performance, but a solid result in the end. We move onto a tough fixture against Crystal Palace next week!