Arsenal’s post-Christmas revival will really gather pace if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s brace in this 3-0 win over Newcastle signals a return to form.
For 50 minutes or so, this appeared likely to be another evening spent in the shadow of his former self, bereft of confidence and lacking conviction when chances presented themselves.
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With just a quarter of an hour played, Bukayo Saka burst into the box and tried a shot across goal which Newcastle goalkeeper Karl Darlow touched away with his outstretched right foot. The ball came quickly to Aubameyang just beyond the far post around three yards out and he could only steer his shot off the far upright with the goal at his mercy. The speed with which the ball came to him, via a late deflection, offered small mitigation but it was a chance he should have converted and one he surely would have done had he been anywhere near his best of late.
Just before the interval, Aubameyang had another chance to cut in from the left and try his luck but the 31-year-old could only produce a tame effort off target. And so when Thomas Partey released Aubameyang five minutes after half-time for another run at Newcastle right-back Emil Krafth, the odds were against what happened next.
Suddenly, the old Aubameyang appeared. The one who helped Arteta and Arsenal thrive in ‘Project Restart’ and helped guide them to an FA Cup final success with goals against Manchester City and Chelsea.
The Gabon international burst forward with intent, shifted the ball onto his left foot, and in a flash fired a shot past Darlow. It was reward, not least for his perseverance.
“That’s what he has done through his career and mentally you have to be really strong in order to do that,” said Gunners boss Mikel Arteta. “He has come out of a difficult period. We have been missing his goals a lot. Today he has come back and scored two, and contributed to the team to win and this is exactly what we need. So I am really pleased for him.”
It was only Aubameyang’s second Premier League goal since Nov. 1 but one that eased frustrations on a night when Arsenal dominated the ball but struggled to translate that superiority to the scoreline.
Thomas Partey, making his first start since Dec. 6 following a thigh injury, looked utterly unflustered throughout, misplacing just three of his 58 passes all evening. Sterner tests are to come for Arsenal’s £45 million summer signing but there were encouraging signs given the midfielder’s lack of action due to injury since arriving from Atletico Madrid.
Meanwhile, youngsters Emile Smith Rowe and Saka continue to inject joy into the Gunners’ play, taking advantage of some dreadful defending and to combine for Arsenal’s second.
It felt apt that Smith Rowe continues to show signs of being able to take up a creative mantle once the preserve of Mesut Ozil, who is now in Turkey ahead of a move to Fenerbahce. Smith Rowe is said to have been one of several youngsters to look up to Ozil even during his spell in the wilderness but the quickest way for everyone to move on is for the 20-year-old to continue on like this.
“The manager tells me so much to play free, clear my mind, and be confident,” Smith Rowe told Sky Sports. “If I make a mistake he tells me to carry on. I’m so happy to play for a manager like Mikel and to get these opportunities.”
Cedric Soares, selected ahead of Hector Bellerin at right-back, capped a composed display with an assist for Aubameyang to tap home a second. It is the first time Aubameyang has scored more than once in a game since that FA Cup final — he was denied the chance to pursue a hat trick after coming off with what Arteta described as a small “stomach issue” — and since signing his new contract in September, there have been accusations in some quarters of a drop off in intensity from the Gabonese.
However, his tally of just eight goals for the season including the Community Shield is the product of a number of factors beyond a loss of confidence, not least the poor chance creation the Gunners suffered with during that spell before Christmas when they lost five out of seven games in all competitions.
Aubameyang has now scored in his last four games against Newcastle and Arteta’s hope will be this is the beginning of a renaissance given the tougher opposition that lies in wait: potentially Southampton twice in four days before Manchester United, Wolves, Aston Villa, Leeds, Benfica and Manchester City.
But everyone has to start somewhere. Steve Bruce made eight changes to the team that lost 1-0 to Sheffield United but there was little discernible by way of a reaction and in the end, this was a nice confidence-builder for the home side, their fifth win in six games (including their FA Cup third-round win against Bruce’s men nine days earlier).
This was also Arsenal’s fifth consecutive clean sheet, the first time they have managed such a run in 12 years. Align that with a revived Aubameyang and Arteta may well be on to something.