Aidan Gibson: Newcastle vs Arsenal preview

With all of the Cesc Fabregas transfer drama, Arsenal’s opening match tomorrow against Newcastle is flying under the radar, especially when the media just want to ask Arsene Wenger about Fabregas and Samir Nasri. With both unavailable, (Nasri is “sick”, Fabregas not “match fit”), and no replacements having come in yet, it will be a difficult task against a Newcastle side that is almost fully fit.

As we discussed last week, throughout preseason without Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal have been playing a 4-1-2-3, rather than the usual 4-2-3-1, thus making playmaking duties more shared out. With Jack Wilshere unavailable, the likely 2 advanced midfielders will be Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey. With no Samir Nasri, it’ll be a pacey and direct attack from wide areas, with 2 from Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Andrey Arshavin starting.

After last year’s 4-4 draw, Newcastle may be encouraged to have a go against Arsenal, rather than doing the traditional defend deep and narrow routine. If they do that, and play 4-4-2, it can benefit Arsenal, by giving them control of the midfield, and also, by being able to exploit the pace of Gervinho/Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott, both in possession and on the counter attack. Arsenal’s pressing game will be important here, too: Make sure Newcastle don’t have time to play long balls over the top, and press in the midfield to win the ball back and counter attack.

One thing that is for certain about tomorrow is that it will be a very different Arsenal side. No Cesc Fabregas, no Samir Nasri, and no direct replacements, such as Jadson and Juan Mata for those two. Aaron Ramsey can deputise for Fabregas, but replacing Nasri means changing the style of play a bit. While Nasri can be direct and make excellent diagonal runs behind the striker, he can also hold possession, and ensure Arsenal retain the ball.

That has it’s pluses and minuses–sometimes it slows down play, but sometimes it keeps play ticking. Gervinho and Theo Walcott, for all of their excellent qualities, are not the best passers of the ball. Because of that, Arsenal have been more direct this pre-season, and that should continue tomorrow. However, when we say direct, we mean less retention of the ball, more risky passes for the wide forwards cutting in behind van Persie, rather than becoming a purely long ball team.

More direct running from the likes of Gervinho and Theo Walcott can lead to more chances: With the two advanced midfielders deeper than Fabregas, it gives more space for van Persie to drop into, and, if the centre backs follow him, more space for Gervinho and Walcott to take up. If the centre backs don’t follow van Persie, it gives him space to become the number 10, and build play. In that way, losing Fabregas and thus slightly tweaking the formation can return Arsenal back to their fluidity of early 2009/10.

Defensively, how Arsenal will defend set pieces will be interesting. They’ve developed a zonal marking system that has worked so far in preseason, but Newcastle, who are a big team and have a fantastic deliverer in Joey Barton will be their first real test. Against Newcastle last year, 3 out of the 5 goals Arsenal conceded in both league fixtures came from set pieces.

How they defend here will be crucial to getting all 3 points. Thomas Vermaelen should return from injury, and with Laurent Koscielny back as well, Arsenal’s first choice partnership will finally be in place for the first time since last August. If those two defend as they have in preseason, and if the Arsenal starting XI press as they have in preseason, Arsenal should be fine in open play.

Arsenal should win today and start the season off on a high note; after that, against Udinese, Liverpool and United, it is very much dependent on injuries and who Arsene Wenger brings in to offset the potential departure of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.

You can find Aidan, our new tactics columnist, on Twitter here.

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