Arsenal got their Premier League season off to a winning start at Newcastle this afternoon. Unai Emery’s men had a solitary strike courtesy of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to thank for the 3 points, with the Gunners’ faithful having also been handed a first look at summer signings Dani Ceballos, Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe in competitive action.
Below, we take a look at 4 of the key talking points surrounding the performance of the north Londoners at St. James’ Park.
Willock is ready to contribute
Upon Arsenal’s team-sheet for this afternoon being released an hour prior to kick-off, there was an equal mix of excitement and anxiety, as the predicted absences of both Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac were compounded by all of Alexandre Lacazette, Lucas Torreira and Nicolas Pepe starting from the bench.
This meant that youngsters Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock were handed somewhat surprising berths in Unai Emery’s starting XI.
The English talents, however, did not look at all out of their depth.
While Nelson showed flashes of his undoubted ability in patches, it was Willock who caught the eye of most.
19-year-old Willock looks a potential star in the making.
The Three Lions youth international possesses all of the characteristics of a modern midfielder, combining touch, athleticism, the ability to burst past opposing defenders, an eye for goal and a superb engine.
Perhaps most impressive with regards to Willock’s performance at St. James’ Park today, though, was how little the occasion seemed to phase the teen.
Despite a rousing atmosphere ahead of kick-off, and being asked to take the creative burden of Arsenal’s midfield on his inexperienced shoulders, Willock went about his business with minimal fuss, looking completely at ease with the pace and physicality of the Premier League.
Although the sample size is a small one, Arsenal may just have found their long-term replacement for a certain Aaron Ramsey…
Sokratis leads by example
While the Gunners will no doubt come away from their season opener satisfied with both their performance and the result, hosts Newcastle will be forced to go firmly back to the drawing board.
The Magpies looked some way short of the standard required of a side with hopes of bettering their 13th-placed finish from last season, with a persistent lack of cutting edge having restricted Steve Bruce’s men to half-chances throughout.
Nevertheless, while his afternoon’s work was aided by the largely-toothless opposition, Sokratis Papastathopoulos impressed at the heart of Arsenal’s backline at St. James’ Park.
The former Borussia Dortmund man led by example throughout, organising the visitors’ defence, and taking on the mantle of leader on the back of club captain Laurent Koscielny’s departure earlier this week.
After being faced with a couple of early scares in the form of the pace of Miguel Almiron and the deft touch of Joelinton, Sokratis tightened up the screws as proceedings wore on, with his second-half display in particular, alongside the returning Calum Chambers, having proven crucial to the Gunners bagging all 3 points.
Aubameyang the difference-maker
As outlined above, while Arsenal did look largely in control this afternoon, save for a 15-minute spell during the first-half, a solitary strike eventually proved the difference between a disappointing stalemate, and a morale-boosting victory on Tyneside.
The north Londoners did not create many clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities, but, crucially, on the one occasion that Unai Emery’s men did manage to carve Newcastle’s backline wide open, the right man was, as he so often is, on hand to convert.
The player in question, meanwhile, was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
A brilliantly-timed interception on the halfway-line on the part of Ainsley Maitland-Niles just before the hour mark saw the versatile youngster break free down the right, before picking out the completely unmarked Aubameyang on the edge of the box.
And the Gabonese hitman went on to do exactly what he has done for the last 18 months, since first pulling on an Arsenal jersey.
A perfect first touch was followed by an equally-exquisite finish, as ‘Auba’ lofted the ball over the onrushing Martin Dubravka to hand his side all 3 points.
While the 30-year-old at times tends to frustrate with his overall contribution to the game, there is absolutely no questioning the fact that Aubameyang is simply a world-class goalscorer.
As things stand, the explosive attacker is undoubtedly the Gunners’ most important player.
One sour note on an otherwise largely-positive day for all associated with Arsenal, however, was the performance of Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Armenian midfielder Mkhitaryan was the only of the capital outfit’s starters to have genuinely-disappointed with his display, as the former Dortmund man’s sloppy nature in possession, coupled with a frequent lack of end product, proved at times difficult to watch.
He also blazed the visitors’ 2nd-best opportunity of the game 20 yards over the bar during the first-half, with the fact that Mkhitaryan wasn’t hooked until 5 minutes from time having come as something of a mystery.
With Nicolas Pepe no doubt set to carve out a regular starting berth for himself on Arsenal’s right-flank over the coming weeks, and Mesut Ozil likely to return imminently on the back of an impressive pre-season, Mkhitaryan could well find consistent minutes on the pitch hard to come-by in the near future.
But, based on his latest showing, this will not be an eventuality lamented by too many of the Gunners’ loyal fanbase.