Now that’s a scoreline we’ve not seen in a while. Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang on the score line. But best of all Cigarette finally stumbled over and scored a goal. Not entirely deserved but what we needed. Who knew this team could gain 3 points in one match.
What a team selection. Two weeks in the sand and somehow we lost both Cigarette and Torreira. I could, unfortunately understand the former but not the latter. You’d have got long odds on this selection along with that of Dani. It’s so radical that you don’t even notice that Mustafa is now deemed the regular center-half. I’m sure this related to how MA believed NU would set up but this was a calculated risk; it was based on the expectation that they would not bother attacking. Nonetheless, it’s a selection that not many managers would have taken.
I’ve never thought of playing both Dani and Ozil in the same team. And then to add in Pepe along with Eddie? No-way. Where is the balance? Because there is no defensive cover here. MA hoped NU would park the bus and then hope they can’t counter-attack. This was brave by MA. Someone who wants to win. Someone who needs three points. This is unquestionably more Pep than Unai.
But that first half was pretty turgid. In Dubai they obviously trained on sand because for the first 45 minutes it looked like we were in quicksand. Our play was slow and sideways. We were disjointed and hesitant. There was no direction and our best players weren’t involved enough. Pepe passed backwards, Ozil was barely on the ball and Aubameyang was lost on the left wing.
Fortunately, NU were dire. Aside from defending they offered nothing. They had a few chances in the first half down Hector’s side. The poor boy really has lost his mo-jo; with his hair goen so is his speed. On a number of occasions he was beaten for speed – which is worrying for a play who’s game is based on speed. His judgement is hesitant, he lets the ball bounce in front of him too often. He’s been out for a long time and it still shows. He needs another couple of months to regain his form. Today he looked like the weakest link.
In that first half Dani and Xhaka were passing the ball sideweays and backwards without purpose. Eddie was barely able to make runs. Overall, it looked like the gamble MA took with his selection was going to backfire. But, fortunately, the opposition – if that’s the right word – was Newcastle.
Then came the second half. Finally we found some pace and movement. Dani got on the ball and dominated; Pepe was more involved and Saka was a star. This boy is fearless. In the first half he was our best player. In the second, he demonstrated leadership. The youngest player on the team had the biggest impact. He drifted infield and then made his runs down the left. And before that Pepe set up a classic center-forward header from Aubameyang. That changed the game entirely. NU were incapable of adjusting to being behind. Sure, as in the first half, they had a chance or two – always by getting the better of Bellerin – but they deserved nothing. On the other hand, we had Saka nutmegging their defender and then picking out Pepe. Then we replaced the underwhelming Eddie with our real center-forward. It was brave to select Eddie today but it did not work. He was just a few steps off the entire game. Not quite able to retain possession when needed, taking too many touches when he should have shot, hitting the bar for an open goal and generally just not making the impact required. He’ll learn a lot form this first game. It should give him confidence that he started. There will be more opportunities for him. And he will improve. He will help us this season.
But seeing Cigarette on the field setting up Ozil and then scoring a jammy goal will have lifted everyones spirits. He needs something because we need him. He will feel a lot better after that. He just needs to score in away games now.
Arteta must have lite a fire in the dressing room because that second half performance was so much better. Ozil was more involved and Dani move the ball quicker. Xhaka took a back seat for Dani to dominate and string the passes together. But, in a non physical and yet meaningful way, I realized that I love Saka. He was so entertaining, so lacking in fear. It was a joy to watch. On the right Hector was passing backwards and sideways whereas Saka was creating and challenging NU. It’s amazing that at this age he’s able to handle the pressure and the opportunity. It’s not like he’s been introduced into a successful team that has a defined identify with experienced players at the top of their game. He’s had to handle a new position, new manager and an unstable team.
I was surprised at how inept NU were. How little fightback there was once they went down. How slow they were to change their tactics. Sure they had a chance when they hit the post – after Hector got beaten again. But we were never threatened. It was just a case of being able to crack their wall of 9 players. And then once we grab a 2 nill lead MA made the right changes. Bringing back on Torreira to harden our defense and protect the win.
How bad were Newcastle? So bad they made Mustafa look good. David Luiz barely broke into a sweat. Our two center-halfs just passed the ball sideways under little pressure. In that first half these two played too many speculative long diagonal balls but that was the fault of Dani and Xhaka who should have been dropping to receive the ball. That changed in the second half and thankfully NU were nice enough to give us time to figure this out.
So three very important points. Clearly this is a long journey that we’re on. But today felt like a start. You can only beat the team you’re facing. Clearly there will be tougher opponents. Both Everton and West Ham will be tougher challenges. But with Cigarette scoring, Martinelli to come back in, Torreira on the bench and Tierney getting fitter we’re going to have interesting selection decisions soon. We won’t be able to get away with both Dani and Ozil against Everton. But it’s not clear who make way after todays game. These are good problems though. And MA showed he was willing to take risks with his selection. And he was right.
With UEFA fining ManC it will be interesting to see what the EPL does in terms of taking away points. I don’t want Sp*rs to benefit by gaining a CL place. It’s imperative they suffer as much as possible. Having them fail to get into the CL would be a winning season for us and crushing financially for them. It’s what I pray for. Their imminent demise with maximum pain. So we need SU and Wolves to step up. We’re too far away. But Chelski have to nail down a spot and we have to hope one of these others come through. After today, we can begin to dream of capturing another tedious season in the NoHoppa cup. As good as the second half was there was also evidence of how far this team has to work. I can remember the Liverpool team in Klopps first season. This does not feel that different. And he needed 5 years. So we’re on a long journey. But that’s OK because at least it feels like we’re headed in the right direction with the right manager.
After two weeks in the desert (both the team and the fans), it’s a pleasure to enjoy this team again. We are seeing progress and development. We finally have an intelligent manager. Though we still have to hear from that last loser who can’t seem to get over his failures. At least when Bruce Rioch departed he had the decency to keep his mouth shut. Each time Emery opens his mouth he just reaffirms why it was right to let him go. He was not good enough for PSG or us.
So now back to the NoHoppaCup and then it’s Everton. Maybe this season is going to more interesting than we’d thought. We have plenty to play for; two cups, a league position, the hope that Liverpool can lose a game in the next five matches and the belief that Sp*rs will implode and finish no higher than 6th.