Focus: How Arsenal will break through a bunkered-in Newcastle
Eclectic zigzag formations and contorted attacking lines have undermined Steve McClaren’s attempts to cautiously embed his possession-centric aesthetics at St James’ Park. The visit of Arsenal – whose scowling general demands territorial dominance – is likely to result in a further setback for a Newcastle side that will regress into Pardew-esque retreat and counter.
McClaren’s appointment was partly motivated by the tactical elegance of his Derby County team, and his attempts to implement a similar strategy at Newcastle were confirmed during the opening-day draw with Southampton; Newcastle’s full-backs each completed 60 passes (up from a 2014/15 average of 34), with attacks built slowly from the back. However, successive matches against possession-based teams (Swansea and Manchester United) have seen the tactical evolution temporarily swept aside. The Arsenal match will be no different.
Statistical analysis suggests that the pattern of this match will be easy to follow. So far this season, Arsenal have held more possession (62%), spent more time in the opposition third (35%) and had more shots (20.3 per match) than any other team in the league, while Newcastle have held less possession (41%) than 17 teams, spent the most amount of time in their own third (33%) and had the least shots (6.7 per match) in the division.
Considering Newcastle have also recorded more unsuccessful touches than any other team (16.3 per match), this match should see Arsenal’s flitting frontline dominate. The key area of their attack this season has, uncharacteristically, been the left flank (43%, division highest) thanks largely to a dramatic shift in Mesut Ozil’s positional play. Arsenal are frequently accused of using inverted wingers to attack through the centre, leading to congested final thirds and predictable patterns. However, this season Ozil has drifted over to the left and helped overload the flanks and provide an outlet by completing the triangle.
Ozil’s role has completely changed this season.
As a result, Arsenal have completed 7 crosses per match (up from an average of 3.5 in 2014/15) and have twice scored from crossing positions. Ozil’s assist for Olivier Giroud's opener against Crystal Palace (a cross from the left) was the result of Palace’s wingers failing to adequately track back as they awaited the counter-attack, and the man-to-man overload created by Ozil’s unexpected touchline presence.
Note how frequently Arsenal create from the wings compared to last season.
Newcastle’s tactical setup could result in a repeat. McClaren has said that Moussa Sissoko is “touch and go” to recover in time to start on the right, with Gabriel Obertan the other possible option. Both players struggle to maintain defensive discipline and can often be found jogging listlessly behind the play; unless McClaren addresses this issue, Ozil and Alexis Sanchez will dominate on this side. Two of Newcastle’s three goals conceded have come from unchallenged crosses not dissimilar to the goals Arsenal scored at Palace.
Both Obertan and Sissoko average 1 tackle and 1 interception per match.
The current stylistic trends of these two teams clash distinctly. The swirling movement and frantic high pressing of Arsenal presents an ominous task for a Newcastle team still instinctively favouring territorial retreat after years of Alan Pardew tactics. The form of both sides has been volatile; Newcastle, after recording a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, must perform with similar defensive solidity to keep Ozil at bay.