Mikel Arteta’s selection gamble pays off as supporting cast at Arsenal make pressing case to start
Mikel Arteta’s team has picked itself this season, but he now has plenty to ponder ahead of Sunday’s match at Newcastle.
The Arsenal manager made three changes for Tuesday night’s win over Chelsea, as the Gunners knocked Manchester City off top spot in the Premier League.
Arteta started all three of his January signings — and Jakub Kiwior, Jorginho and Leandro Trossard each seized the opportunity handed to them.
It was a significant roll of the dice from Arteta to bring in the trio, particularly as it meant dropping Gabriel Martinelli and Thomas Partey. The pair have been regulars for Arsenal this season, with Martinelli one of the side’s best players but, after a run of four games without a win, Arteta had to do something.
The Spaniard has made fewer changes to his starting XIs than any other Premier League manager this season and there will now be a temptation to head to St James’ Park with an unchanged team.
Arsenal blew Chelsea away in the first half, scoring three goals in 16 minutes.
The first two goals were carbon copies, with Granit Xhaka picking out Martin Odegaard on the edge of the box and the captain firing home.
Odegaard and Xhaka looked liberated last night, and Jorginho certainly played a part in that. Partey has been excellent this season, but his form has dipped recently.
Jorginho’s inclusion brought a cool head to Arsenal’s midfield and a feeling of control. The Gunners will need that at Newcastle as they return to the ground where their Champions League dreams ended last season.
“That’s just the way he (Jorginho) plays,” said Arteta. “What he brings every single day in training: leadership, intelligence, capacity to control the game, the way he communicates with people, the quality that he brings, the level of attention, the experience, because he’s been in many situations like these before.”
Jorginho was the best performer from Arteta’s changes, but Kiwior and Trossard did well, too.
Trossard has been worthy of a start after several impressive cameos off the bench, while Kiwior’s inclusion felt necessary, given Rob Holding’s recent struggles.
After a shaky start, Kiwior looked assured in the heart of Arsenal’s defence on his League debut.
Coping with the atmosphere at St James’ Park, and the in-form Alexander Isak and Callum Wilson, will be a far greater test, but the centre-back has done his chances no harm.
“He looked ready, he looked fresh, he looked really determined,” said Arteta.
“He’s been getting better and better every single day, not only in training but his interaction and his language. He’s more settled and he’s a player that I really like, that’s why I signed him.”
The challenge for Arteta, however, is just how much he can read into this game against an extremely lacklustre Chelsea.
The Blues have now lost six matches in a row under caretaker manager Frank Lampard and it is easy to see why.
Chelsea barely threatened the Gunners, as summed up by the fact Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had nine touches before being hooked at half-time. Four of those were kick-offs.
Such an environment allowed Kiwior to settle, while Jorginho was able to dictate the tempo of the game.
In attack, Chelsea’s defending meant Trossard could exploit pockets of space. For Arsenal’s third goal, Gabriel Jesus was allowed to chest the ball down in the six-yard box before eventually scoring.
Only Noni Madueke getting on the scoresheet and Gabriel limping off with a knock took the gloss off a comfortable win for Arsenal.
It was just what they needed after a difficult few weeks and as they try to keep pace with Manchester City.
The title is very much in City’s hands and they will regain top spot tonight with a win against West Ham. If they do that and also beat Leeds on Saturday, Pep Guardiola’s side will be four points clear of Arsenal.
It is why Sunday’s game at St James’ Park feels like a defining match in the title race. Defeat there would surely end Arsenal’s hopes of reeling in City.
“We are at the top right now, we have four games to go,” said Arteta.
“We have to enjoy and we have to embrace it, and we have to maximise the opportunity we have, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. What we can control is to win our matches.”