An under-strength Arsenal side took all three points from their opening game away at Newcastle United on Sunday thanks to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s 58th-minute winner.
He may have turned 30 over the summer, but the Gabon striker looked as sharp as ever, even shorn of his two most regular assist providers from last season.
In this game, Newcastle continued with their setup from last term and went with three central defenders. Aubameyang would have a tough time finding space centrally against that trio, whilst Alexandre Lacazette and Aaron Ramsey, who each created three goals for the striker last season in the Premier League, were both missing – the former only fit enough for the bench after injury, and the latter departed to Juventus on a free transfer.
The Gabon hitman took his Premier League goal tally to 33 in his first 50 games for Arsenal with this strike, a better record than even Thierry Henry…or anyone else in a Gunners shirt from their first half-century of appearances for that matter.
He had a fairly quiet start to this match though.
With two teenagers from Arsenal’s production line in Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson in the starting XI, it would have been tempting for the striker to drop off and try to link play more than usual.
Instead, he stayed high and focused on exploiting the space behind, and to the sides, of Newcastle’s back three. Positional patience was required.
With Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the side, however, there was always a player constantly looking for runs from ‘Auba’. The duo have combined for 25 goals over their 160 career appearances together, with 15 goals by Aubameyang assisted by the Armenian, and 10 goals scored by Mkhitaryan that had the Gabon forward as the provider.
After a quiet start, there were three occasions where the duo linked up with the best of those coming in a 31st-minute counter-attack. Mkhitaryan sent Aubameyang into the space behind right centre back, Fabian Schar and the striker forced a good save with a left-footed attempt.
That attempt was a warning not heeded by Newcastle, as the forward constantly exploited the space behind the aggressively-positioned Swiss defender. From Granit Xhaka’s pass early in the second half, Aubameyang broke into that same space, requiring Jamaal Lascelles to scurry across to block the attempt.
When the goal came, it was from exactly that space.
Lascelles moved out towards the left to defend a counter-attack, assuming Schar was picking up the Arsenal striker. When Ainsley Maitland-Niles picked out Aubameyang, he cautioned the pass as it skidded across the surface, then dinked it over the goalkeeper calmly.
After his 43 previous Arsenal goals, that type of finish can be taken from granted, but it was far from easy. In his punditry role for Sky Sports, Jose Mourinho summed up the finish perfectly:
“He’s cool, he loves to be there and of course, what I love to say, simplicity sometimes is genius,” the Portuguese coach began. “That control looks simple but it’s not simple, it’s genius.
“Then the finishing is beautiful.”
At 1-0 up with 20 minutes to go, Ivory Coast winger Nicolas Pepe came on for his debut.
Playing in his usual role from the right-hand side, it was a fairly low-key first outing in terms of touches on the ball. That is no surprise as his side looked to protect a lead. With a fresh Jetro Willems getting forward from left wing-back for Newcastle, Pepe had his fair share of defending to do too.
However, even if he didn’t receive the ball, Pepe’s movement into scoring areas was typically positive and bodes well for the future. In the 81st minute, Aubameyang moved in off the right flank and actively tried to find Pepe’s run in-behind the Magpies backline.
Soon after, Mkhitaryan got free on the left and, as Aubameyang attacked the near post, Pepe made a movement to the penalty spot for a cut-back. Whilst the ball didn’t arrive, it showed excellent awareness of space in the box. A later switch of position between the African duo had Pepe running into the box to attack a low Aubameyang cross from the right flank.
Beyond that, there was one Pepe dribble up the right with his first involvement, some quick feet under pressure in tight spaces, and one piece of play to draw a freekick in his own half with strong shielding.
It was the ideal performance for a team leading 1-0 against opponents now leaving space for counter-attacks.
It may be another week or two before Unai Emery starts all of his French-speaking attackers in the same XI, and when he does, a measure of self-sacrifice will be needed from the triumvirate.
Last season, Lacazette and Aubameyang visibly took joy in setting each other up for goals and there was no selfish agenda from either player. The latter told the Arsenal official website after Sunday’s game about his excitement at playing alongside Pepe:
“I’m looking forward to it, because he’s a really great player,” the Central African began. “He’s already shown in training that he’s capable of doing great things with us.
“Hopefully, he will start soon.”
On the evidence of their early minutes together, there is no reason why all three attackers can’t play at the same time, in some games at least, and yet still leave Arsenal with a modicum of tactical balance.
It’s almost certainly going to require a slightly wider role for the Gabonese forward, but he showed in this game just how dangerous he can be making runs in the channels – 12 assists in his 66 Arsenal appearances shows he can be a creator as well as scorer.
Excitement, pace, interchanging and goals galore await Arsenal fans.