When analysing a 4-0 win it is simplistic to say that it was due to Arsenal’s miss-firing forwards finally getting it together. But the truth is Arsenal’s biggest win of the season was built on weeks of defensive improvement.
Mikel Arteta’s first job at the club was to improve us defensively.
In Unai Emery’s last 10 games, Arsenal had conceded 18 goals. We were a mess defensively. Individual errors and no collective structure, it is impossible to expect to be able to win games if you are conceding at a rate of nearly 2 a game.
Arsenal improved defensively from the first game under Arteta – and the team have now conceded just 8 goals under his mangerialship. But these improved defensive performances came at a cost as the midfield and forward struggled to create enough chances to score.
A big problem for Arsenal was transitioning the ball from defence through midfield. A midfield of Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira was solid, but also provided very little going forward. A lot of safe, sideways and backwards passes. It meant the forwards were starved of the ball.
But this set up was needed to stop Arsenal leaking goals. You can have the best forwards in the world on the pitch, but it is pointless if you are conceding 2 goals a game.
What we saw against Newcastle was Arteta make a change in midfield based on the confidence he now had in his defence.
Even though the back line contained the much criticised Shkodran Mustafi (who has been excellent under Arteta) and a teenage left winger in Bukayo Saka at left back, Arteta was able to play a less defensive midfield.
This saw Dani Ceballos come in for Torreira.
It slightly weakened us defensively in the middle of the park, but Arteta was confident his new defensive structure would be able to cope. What it did though was massively improve us moving the ball forward.
No player played more forward passes than Ceballos – 69. He went off after 82 minutes.
Ceballos also played more forward passes against Newcastle than any player in other game under Arteta – and more than any Arsenal player this year.
What is impressive is so often the player who plays the most forward passes is often a central defender, with the majority of those passes being short passes into the midfield. With Ceballos leading the way, it meant we were getting the ball forward to our forwards more. And in more advanced positions.
Without our improved defensive displays, Arteta would not have had the confidence to play the more progressive Ceballos, and we probably would not have won 4-0.
With Matteo Guendouzi, Xhaka and Torreira in the squad offering us a defensive option, maybe we need to be focusing more on a box to box midfielder rather than a defensive one this summer.
Someone who can do better at linking the defence to the forwards (think Santi Cazorla or Jack Wilshere) rather someone who can break up play.
Hopefully Arteta’s confidence in defence continues and we see more results like the 4-0 win over Newcastle.