In the reverse fixture four months ago, Arsenal was in roughly the same form. They were seventh in mid-December, and they were sitting sixth heading into this match. They had taken seven points from their previous five matches, and they had taken nine of the available 15 heading into this fixture.

Newcastle, on the other hand, were at the nadir of the campaign: one point had been taken from their previous five games; Lascelles had just returned from a six-week absence; every attacker had lost their confidence (and touch); the team’s defensive shape was as vulnerable as ever.

Fast forward to mid-April, and Newcastle is a side transformed. They had won three on-the-trot and had taken 10 points of the available 15. Buoyed by a Champions League-tested Dubravka and the technically-proficient Kenedy, Newcastle carried well-earned confidence heading into this fixture.


When Newcastle Had the Ball

Shelvey held the keys to the attack. The top three passing combos for Newcastle were Shelvey to Gayle (6), Dummett to Shelvey (5), and Yedlin to Shelvey (5). Shelvey’s intent was to hit Gayle in space behind Arsenal’s defensive line, allowing the other attackers to break forward with pace.

In defence, Arsenal formed four distinct bands: the defensive line (with their full-backs pushing up at times); a midfield duo of Elneny and Xhaka; a trio of Aubameyang, Willock, and Iwobi; and Lacazette up top. Every Arsenal outfield player seemed to be instructed to press, at all times.

When Arsenal Had the Ball

In attack, Arsenal preferred to control possession through short passing – often times, they’d purposefully halt their attack to re-group and regain composure. They were averse to long balls and aerial duels, preferring to attack with through balls and other types of ground passing.

In defence, Newcastle formed three distinct bands: the backline; the midfield four (Kenedy, Shelvey, Diamé, Ritchie); and the duo of Gayle and Perez. Newcastle tended to wait until the midway line was crossed before the closest individual would press.

By The Numbers

Expected Goals0.891.42
Shots on Target43
Chances Created810
Accurate Passes63%85%
Deep Passes Completed610
Dribbles Won69
Tackles Won58
Aerial Duels Won2218
Expected Points0.941.78

Note: Stats are sourced from understat and whoscored.

How the Goals Happened

14′ Lacazette (NEW 0-1 ARS)

Long ball played from Mustafi in behind Newcastle‘s defence which Aubameyang gets on the end of. The cross is played into Lacazette on the far post who stretches to finish into the back of the net. The overall quality of world-class attacking power is shown in this move. When Mustafi plays the long ball in, Aubameyang is on Yedlin‘s wrong side, whose body shape is wrong and gives Aubameyang a head start to pounce.

Lejeune has a lot of options to consider before the cross is put in as Monreal has an advanced position and has taken up position near the edge of the box with no midfielders in sight and he might need to close down if the ball gets there. Dummett is 5 metres behind Lacazette and Lejeune is too late to cover the far post and 0-1 is the end result.

29′ Ayoze (NEW 1-1 ARS)

Newcastle‘s offensive move starts from Dubravka and ends up in goal. Relatively quick build-up from Newcastle‘s defence and midfield players (with Kenedy having switched to the right wing). Shelvey plays a laser-guided long pass into Gayle‘s path who gets it out to Yedlin who‘s in an advanced position with space to run into. Yedlin whips in a low driven cross to the front post where Ayoze beats Mustafi to the ball and delivers a great finish to the near post. The build-up to this goal is courtesy of Shelvey‘s passing range and Gayle‘s running in behind defences. Take note of how Gayle puts the ball out and runs back into position at the 6-yard-box to eat up any rebounds. That run also creates space for Ayoze to run into the near post.

68′ Ritchie (NEW 2-1 ARS)

Paul Dummett‘s throw up to Slimani who‘s positioned on the left flank is cleared by Mustafi. Monreal, who is way out of shape, heads the ball back into Slimani‘s path who heads the ball into Ayoze‘s path. Ayoze‘s deft backheel touch puts the ball on a plate for Ritchie to slot home a right-footed finish past Cech. It all goes wrong here for Arsenal, especially Monreal‘s header back into Slimani. This goal maybe highlights the killer attitude in the squad who punish Arsenal for poor decision making when it comes to clearing the ball. Ritchie’s run into space vacated by Monreal for the throw in shows that the team is aware and on edge when looking for options to score.

Key Tactical Points

1) Arsenal’s Build-up Playing to Newcastle’s Strength

Arsenal are a rarity in modern football; they are one of the few sides that abstain from counter-attacking. When the ball is won, they’ll actually slow the attack down in order to control possession (unfortunately for them, this always gave Newcastle time to re-group their defensive shape).

If one ignores the score lines between this game and the reverse December fixture, there wouldn’t be too many differences of note. In both games, Arsenal had:

  • A huge majority of possession
  • A higher cumulative expected goals output
  • Double the attempted shots
  • Completed 85% of their passes to Newcastle’s 65%

By all accounts, Arsenal should’ve been the dominant side in both ties. And while that certainly was true for the December fixture, that wasn’t the case on the 15th of April.

One way to explain the balance of play can be found in ‘blocks’ and ‘clearances’. While having a lot of ‘stats’ can appear as if a defender had a good game, the truth is that the less a defence has to do, the better it has anticipated and nullified the opposition’s attack.

Essentially, successful tackles and interceptions are preferred to blocks and clearances. The more a side can break-up play before it reaches their own final third, the less danger there is of a goal-scoring event.

So here is a comparison of the December blocks and clearances versus the 15th April game:

16th Dec 2017ArsenalNewcastle
15th Apr 2018NewcastleArsenal

In other words, the Newcastle backline had a lot less work to do on this round. The biggest reason for this? Newcastle’s heat-seeking missile, Mohamed Diamé.

2) Mo Diamé: Disruptor Extraordinaire

Rafa seems to have given Diamé a unique role: freelance destroyer. When defending, Newcastle will form a very tidy 4-4-2 shape. A new wrinkle to this set-up is that Diamé will break the shape and press the opposition as he sees fit, and it’s paying dividends.

On the right is an example of how Diamé disrupts the opposition. In the 7th minute, Monreal, Willock, and Xhaka were advancing the ball forward up the left channel. Newcastle were shaped in their typical 4-4-2 structure, and Mo watched Arsenal’s interplay while spaced perfectly between Ritchie and Shelvey.

The moment that Monreal showed that he was passing to Willock, Diamé broke forward and forced Willock into a bad touch, which then forced Arsenal to hit the reset button. Diamé didn’t get any statistical credit for this disruption, but he produced many moments like this.

Mo did lead all players in successful tackles (five out of six attempts) and interceptions (5). His newfound ‘freelance destroyer’ role was instrumental in removing the steam out of several Arsenal attacks.

Newcastle’s Man of the Match: Ayoze Pérez

Although this win was very much a team performance it was Ayoze who shone through. Taking home a goal and an assist from the match. His upturn in form has also been a great contribution to Newcastle‘s form lately. Ayoze was unlucky not to grab a second goal in the 77th minute when Slimani had set him up with a cross into the box before he was subbed on the 78th.

Arsenal’s Man of the Match: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was Arsenal’s creative outlet in this match and also bagged an assist, setting Lacazette up to take the lead. Aubameyang got into great positions and regularly spun off his marker to create space for himself or others to run into. He linked up well with Lacazette through big parts of the game and especially as he moved more centrally in the latter stages of the match. Ultimately it wasn’t enough for Arsenal to get the second.

In Conclusion

Though Arsenal didn’t play its best player (Ozil), their best central midfielder (Ramsey), and the game was at St. James’ Park, Newcastle still faced long odds to win all three points.

However, Newcastle had several things going for it: a brilliant performance from Ayoze Pérez; the dynamic offence-defence ying-yang of Shelvey and Diame; and Arsenal’s insistence on slow build-up play (which allowed Newcastle to organize their shape).

The full points were well earned, and its fair to say that if the game were replayed with the same XIs and tactical approaches, a similar scoreline would occur.