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Bukayo Saka scored for a fifth game in a row as Arsenal moved to within two points of Premier League leaders Liverpool with a dominant 4-1 win over Newcastle on Saturday night.
Transformed from the passive side beaten in Porto on Wednesday night and inspired by wingers Saka and Gabriel Martinelli who had struggled in that Champions League tie, Arsenal were electric from the first whistle, and deservedly two up inside 24 minutes.
Loris Karius, the surprise selection in goal for Newcastle with Martin Dubravka ill, had little protection on his first Premier League appearance in almost six years. He was unable to force away Gabriel’s header from a corner which was knocked into his own goal by Sven Botman and completely exposed when Martinelli cut back for Kai Havertz to stroke in the second.
The visitors eventually found something of a foothold in the second half – but were swiftly hit by another double blow, with Saka cutting back on his left and cracking in a super strike before Jakub Kiwior forced home a header from another corner off Lewis Miley, which Karius could only fumble on its way through.
There was a late consolation for the travelling fans to cheer when Joe Willock headed in against his former club with six minutes to play. It was Newcastle’s first goal at Arsenal in over nine years. But defeat leaves them eighth, 15 points off the top four and 10 behind fifth-placed Tottenham.
Arsenal, infuriated by VAR’s decision to allow Anthony Gordon’s winner to stand at St James’ Park in November, may have felt like they had a score to settle after that frustrating defeat but the major statement they made with this result and performance is that they are firmly in the three-horse title race.
Arsenal: Raya (7); White (7), Saliba (7), Gabriel (8), Kiwior (7); Rice (7), Odegaard (7), Jorginho (8); Saka (8), Havertz (8), Martinelli (8)
Subs used: Trossard (6), Smith Rowe (6), Nketiah (6), Nelson (6), Elneny (N/A)
Newcastle: Karius (5), Trippier (5), Schar (5), Botman (5), Livramento (5), Longstaff (5), Guimaraes (5), Miley (5), Almiron (6), Gordon (6), Isak (6)
Subs used: Barnes (6), Murphy (6), Willock (7), Lascelles (6), Burn (7)
Player of the match: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
Karius’ first Premier League appearance for Newcastle – and just his second game for the club, almost a year on from his Carabao Cup final debut – was the standout pre-match team news and the goalkeeper would have been relieved to have grasped an early Saka shot and punch away a drive from Declan Rice. But it was just an omen of what was to come from the fired-up Gunners.
Arsenal’s pressure was relentless and it was their set-piece skill that broke the deadlock, with Gabriel flicking Saka’s corner powerfully at Karius, whose parry was inadvertently slid in by Botman as Newcastle scrambled to clear their lines.
The hosts’ second followed soon after, with Martinelli charging across the penalty to latch onto a pass over the top and cutting the ball back for Havertz to apply the simple finish and floor Newcastle again.
The visitors had barely got out of their half and were reeling. Sean Longstaff lunged moments after the restart to prevent Martin Odegaard teeing up Havertz again. Martinelli headed over at the end of another incisive move, while Karius saved well from a Saka shot from the edge of the box as Arsenal pushed for more rewards.
Newcastle finally got a touch in the Arsenal box on 43 minutes, but David Raya was out quickly to stop Miguel Almiron’s progress. They were just happy to hear the half-time whistle. But the second half started just like the first – Havertz should have put Arsenal three clear seconds after the restart but clipped his shot wide when Martinelli played him in one-on-one.
Newcastle’s first shot came soon after, Anthony Gordon cutting in and firing across Raya, and Alexander Isak took a similar route on the hour mark before blasting over as Newcastle began to find their feet in the match for the first time. But Saka’s stunner ended the resistance.
Tino Livramento knew what the Arsenal and England winger wanted to do – cut back onto his left to shoot across goal – but he could not stop him from doing it. A classy piece of play from the in-form Saka.
When Kiwior got on the end of Rice’s corner soon after, and the ball deflected in off Miley and Karius’ left hand, it was game, set and match, allowing Arteta to take off Saka, Havertz and Odegaard for a breather.
Newcastle – who salvaged something to cheer with a nice move down the left which allowed sub Dan Burn to tee up Willock for a looping header on his former home ground – have failed to win on any of their last 12 trips to this stadium. That late goal denied Arsenal a club record run of eight consecutive home clean sheets against Newcastle – but the result was never in doubt as Arteta’s side demonstrated their true strength.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta: “We had a great performance. Big credit to the boys with just two and a half days to prepare. The way they executed everything, the determination, aggression, they played with a lot of courage. I think we fully deserved to win the game.
“They are finding ways to score in various ways. It is very satisfying, we could have scored many more today. There are still some things we have to improve and get players back.
“Credit to the staff to recover the players but I could sense it from the moment we were in Porto we were ready for the game. It’s great to see that reaction, and the support in the stadium and we go again.
“The team is hitting form, we’re in a good moment. Players individually are performing, we score one and we want to go for the second, third and fourth and I love that mentality. We didn’t have enough courage in Porto to do what we did today.”
On Jorginho: “He’s a top player. When an opponent has certain behaviours, set-up, the way I can imagine the game, he can have a big impact. He was magnificent again today. He is certainly world class but individually today we were outstanding. We raised the bar again. They are well coached, it’s difficult to do what we did today and make them suffer.”
Newcastle boss Eddie Howe: “Disappointed with the first half especially. I don’t think we truly got going at all. They put us under pressure and I thought we’d weather it and come into it but we never came out of that moment. We’ll learn a lot from that first 45.
“With every game that goes by and we concede goals it’s a concern. We’re working on lots of things behind the scenes to try to improve that but that probably wasn’t evident in today’s performance. Defending from set plays wasn’t good enough.
“[At half-time] there was a mixture of blunt honesty and how are we going to play in the second half. It was much improved, we were the dominant team and had some chances and you thought if we could get the next goal the game could swing.
“The players that have been fit have been magnificent this season in really challenging circumstances. Today was difficult but I thought we showed our character in the second half and have to do the same against Blackburn in a huge game for our season.”
Arsenal visit Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in the Premier League on Monday Night Football on March 4; kick off 8pm.
Meanwhile, Newcastle visit Blackburn in the FA Cup fifth round at 7.45pm on Tuesday before hosting Wolves in the Premier League next Saturday at 3pm.
FC Porto stunned a drab Arsenal side with a wonderful last-minute winner from Galeno as the Portuguese side took a Champions League last-16 first-leg win to London.
After scoring 11 goals in their last two Premier League games, the Gunners had an off-night in Portugal and failed to register a shot on target for the first time in two years – and were left aghast as Galeno cut inside and hit a superb long-range effort past David Raya in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
Galeno should have put Porto ahead in the first half when he missed two sitters from close range – first hitting the post then somehow putting an even better chance from the rebound wide.
Arsenal’s best chances came from set pieces as William Saliba, Gabriel and Kai Havertz put efforts from dead ball situations wide. But Galeno’s dramatic winner means Mikel Arteta’s side will have to come from behind to progress to the quarter-finals when the second leg comes around on March 12.
FC Porto: Diogo Costa (7); Mario (6), Otavia (7), Pepe (7), Wendell (6); Nico Gonzalez (6), Varela (8); Conceicao (7), Pepe (7), Galeno (8); Evanilson (6)
Subs used: Jaime (6), Martinez (n/a), Borges (n/a)
Arsenal: Raya (7); White (6), Saliba (7), Gabriel (8), Kiwior (7); Rice (8), Odegaard (7), Havertz (6); Saka (6), Trossard (5), Martinelli (6)
Subs used: Jorginho (6)
Player of the match: Galeno (Porto)
“We lacked threat, we lacked much more threat. More aggression [was needed], especially when we had the ball in the final third, especially in the back with more purpose to help them,” Arteta said to TNT Sports after the game.
“We will tweak a few things to attack better especially because, to be fair, we haven’t conceded much at all. But we can do better.”
Arsenal’s young team looked nervous as the club took part in its first Champions League knock-out tie since 2017, looking jittery on the ball despite holding 70 per cent of the first-half possession.
The best chance of the opening period – by an absolute country mile – fell to eventual matchwinner Galeno. Francisco Conceicao did brilliantly down the right and crossed for his fellow winger – who somehow struck the inside of the post from a few yards out.
The rebound fell back to Galeno and he put an even easier chance wide in what was a major let-off for Arsenal.
Porto had a couple more chances as Nico Gonzalez blasted over from distance before top scorer Evanilson fired straight at David Raya from inside the penalty area.
Arsenal’s best chances of the first half came from set pieces, with William Saliba and Kai Havertz – on two occasions – nodding good Bukayo Saka corner deliveries off-target. Saka also saw a cross deflected onto the top of the bar before half-time.
The Gunners’ best opening after the break fell to Leandro Trossard, who blasted over after being found unmarked via Declan Rice’s corner, but the referee blew for a foul in the penalty area which may have ruled out any on-target shot.
For a long time, the only other opportunity of the second period saw Porto midfielder Pepe beat Havertz down the right and square to Evanilson – but Rice did brilliantly to deflect over the bar.
As the game ticked into stoppage time, Gabriel headed over a good chance from a free-kick, but Porto ultimately saved the best until last.
Rice’s pass was picked out by Wendell, who fed Galeno around 35 yards out from goal and his brilliant, bending long-range strike stunned the blunt Gunners.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta to TNT Sports:
“We have to manage it much better. When you cannot win, the way we handled the ball on three occasions in deep areas is not good enough.
“But it’s half-time, if you want to get to the quarter-finals, you have to beat your opponent. And that’s what we have to do at the Emirates now.
“It is a team that is very well organised defensively. They break your rhythm all the time, there were like 35 or 37 fouls in the game.
“So allowing that as well is not good enough and there are certain things we have to do much better. We play them at home, we know them now, we know them. We know what to expect.
“We couldn’t even touch anybody, because everything was a free-kick. We will learn form that, prepare better and go and do it.”
Arsenal midfielder Declan Rice to TNT Sports:
“When it’s 0-0 you look at the clock and it’s 93 minutes gone, if you can’t win the game, don’t lose it. Maybe we needed that savviness about us to stay in and get a draw in a tough stadium against a tough opponent. But there’s a lot to play for in the second leg back at home.
“It [the winner] was so frustrating, it was a whole mixture of play to be honest with you. There were a couple of giveaways on the edge of our box and we were breaking forward – and they caught us on the counter and he stuck one in the top corner, which for us is really disappointing.
“We just said in there, and we are so positive in there, that we had such a good start to 2024. We are not going to let this get us down. We have a big one on Saturday and then address this one in a few weeks’ time.
“They’ve lost just two games here all season – they know what they’re doing. You’ve seen Porto over the years in the Champions League – an honest, hard-working side with great players. They just made it really compact and difficult.
“We have to change our approach in the home leg and give it absolutely everything. This is the Champions League, this is what we want to be competing in, so even though we’re a goal down, it’s a nice goal to aim for where we can turn it around in the home leg.
“It’s just keeping our heads, it’s just hard to concede that late. We have the home leg in front of us, knowing we play at home with our fans and energy. You will see a team that plays on the front foot from the start, hopefully we can do that.”
Arsenal host Newcastle United in the Premier League on Saturday February 24, while the return leg is at the Emirates on Tuesday March 12, with both games kicking off at 8pm.
FC Porto go to Gil Vicente in the Portuguese top-flight on Sunday.
Martin Odegaard scored the first goal and set up the third in Arsenal’s 5-0 thrashing of Burnley on Saturday. He was similarly productive in the 6-0 win over West Ham, providing two assists.
The goal involvements came after a run of five games without one for the Arsenal captain. But his importance to their attacking improvement goes back further than the last few games.
In fact, it can be traced to the end of November, when Mikel Arteta decided to push Odegaard deeper, asking him to serve as a bridge between defence and midfield as well as midfield and attack.
The impact of the change was not immediately obvious. Arsenal soon embarked on a run of one win in five. But even as they were struggling for cutting edge, their chance creation was on the up.
The numbers are compelling. In the first 13 games of the season, before Odegaard’s change of role, Arsenal ranked sixth for goals scored, seventh for expected goals, and even lower, in ninth, for non-penalty expected goals, underlining their issues from open play.
In the 12 games since, however, their output has been transformed. Arsenal rank top for goals scored. Only Liverpool have generated more expected goals. Most significantly, though, they have climbed from ninth to first in terms of non-penalty expected goals.
Those numbers have of course been boosted by their current five-game winning run, during which they have found the net 21 times. But Arsenal have been creating the opportunities consistently.
In the 2-0 loss to West Ham after Christmas, for example, they actually created better chances than in Saturday’s five-goal win at Burnley, totalling 2.77 expected goals compared to 2.36 at Turf Moor.
Finally, they have found some cutting edge to match. Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Leandro Trossard have hit 13 goals between them in the last month. But Odegaard has been the facilitator.
The 25-year-old had an awkward start to the campaign, struggling to exert his usual influence from the position in which he shone last term and even finding himself dropped for the win over Sheffield United in October. But it all changed when he moved further back.
Odegaard’s numbers for touches and passes have risen dramatically. There is more focus on dropping into his own half to build the play. But it has not come at the cost of creativity. In fact, he is making more chances than ever, averaging four per game.
This is not the first time Arteta has adapted Odegaard’s positioning. In an interview with Sky Sports in 2022, the Arsenal boss detailed his efforts to push him in the other direction.
“I think now he is more comfortable doing that [playing further forward] than when he joined because he was all the time playing in deeper roles and getting the ball in deeper areas,” said Arteta.
“He was more comfortable facing the play from those positions than being in advanced positions. But that is the work we have been doing with him. In my opinion, that is where he can be the best for the team.”
Arteta was vindicated. Odegaard’s total of 15 goals last season was the most by an Arsenal midfielder since Cesc Fabregas in 2009/10. But the dynamics of the side changed with Kai Havertz’s arrival in place of Granit Xhaka. Soon, opponents were sitting deeper.
Odegaard had to change too. “We have used Martin to accommodate the needs of the team, to make us better against certain behaviours and challenges that the opponents put for us,” explained Arteta in December. “That is a big quality of his.”
It is a testament to Odegaard’s tactical intelligence that he has adapted so smoothly. Now, he is now starting moves as well as finishing them.
His passing zones show his heightened presence in his own half and there is further evidence of his increased role in Arsenal’s build-up play when breaking down who he is receiving passes from.
Since late November, he is collecting more than three times as many passes from right-sided centre-back William Saliba as he was previously. His passes received from Declan Rice have doubled too.
Arsenal, too often slow and predictable in their build-up play in the early months of the season, now look slick and incisive. “The connection of the players is flowing,” said Arteta when asked to explain their prolific form after the win over Burnley.
That flow has a lot to do with Odegaard. A player previously responsible for providing the final flourishes in the attacking third is now plotting the ball’s journey from one end to the other.
In terms of passes made, the biggest difference is in how frequently he is now combining with Rice. But most significant is that his change of role has allowed him to increase his service to Saka, scorer of six goals in the last four games.
Saka is not the only forward to have benefitted. Odegaard is finding Trossard nearly twice as often as he was. The Belgian, like his younger team-mate, is getting more chances and scoring more goals.
Odegaard’s passes to Havertz have only increased modestly by comparison. But the German seems better off for the change too, with Odegaard’s deeper positioning freeing him up to get forward on the opposite side of Arsenal’s midfield.
Odegaard’s cute pass to release Saka for the third goal against Burnley was his sixth assist of the season. But that number alone does not show the full extent of his creative contribution.
Indeed, even taking into account that awkward start to the season which culminated in him being dropped, Odegaard ranks top among Premier League players for passes leading to a shot this season, his total of 98 putting him 13 clear of anyone else.
He sits in the same spot for open-play chances created and successful through-balls. He also ranks among the Premier League’s top four players for big chances created and expected assists.
It is quite a feat given he is adapting to a new position which takes him further away from goal. But Odegaard has adapted again, dropping back to push the team forward.
Recent evidence shows Arsenal are feeling the benefits.
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