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Aubameyang, Pepe, Saka proving to be key components of Arteta’s Arsenal rebirth

The trio played glowingly in the Gunners’ win over Newcastle United and are central to how the Spaniard wants to play

Arsenal supporters will have been forgiven for thinking Unai Emery was in charge of the side’s goalless first-half in Sunday’s encounter against Newcastle United at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners looked dreary in the opening 45 minutes and it was the sort of humdrum showing that typified the 48-year-old’s last few months in North London.

Mikel Arteta’s side were particularly uninspiring, so much so that Arsenal could only improve after the interval following such a lacklustre display.

As it turned out, the three-time Premier League champions ran out 4-0 winners following a brilliant 45 minutes where they put Steve Bruce’s side to the sword in emphatic fashion.

The protagonists in the success were Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka, who raised their individual performances after both teams returned after the interval.

Pepe’s floated cross from the right was met with a well-timed leap and finely directed header past Martin Dubravka to open the scoring, while the Ivorian wideman doubled the home team’s advantage after great work by Saka on the right. Mesut Ozil netted the Gunners’ third, while Alexander Lacazette completed the scoring with a fortuitous strike in stoppage time.

The win over Newcastle was only the second time they’d claim maximum points since Arteta took charge, but the lack of success hasn’t told the full story of how organised and dutiful the London side has been since December.

Indeed, the aforementioned trio have been central to the new trainer’s style of play, and while Aubameyang and Pepe’s involvement has been by design, Saka’s was prompted by ill-luck to certain teammates.

The Anglo-Nigerian, naturally a winger, has had to fill in at left-back multiple times due to injuries to Sead Kolasinac and Kieran Tierney. On first viewing it seemed like the 18-year-old would be out of place in Arteta’s system, but how he’s utilised amplifies his strengths as a natural winger.

When Arsenal are attacking – usually with a front five – Saka overlaps and maintains his position wide-left, which allows the inside forward to drift in-field from his position and make darting runs into the box.

This was evident from Arteta’s first game at Bournemouth, with the Arsenal academy graduate pushing up to stretch play on the left, which allowed Aubameyang play narrower and closer to Lacazette up top.

Against Everton in December, Freddie Ljungberg’s last game as interim coach, Saka attempted just two crosses, but he attempted eight against the Cherries in the Spaniard’s first game, only five days later on Boxing Day.

In Arsenal’s win over Newcastle on Sunday, the teenager attempted seven crosses, largely unsurprising given his position on the pitch when the team’s in possession.

The makeshift defender’s form has improved lately, and he’s starting to improve on his end product which was lacking early doors under the Spaniard. His assist against the Magpies, where he cleverly put the ball through Valentino Lazaro’s legs before picking out Pepe, who netted the home team’s second, clearly illustrates his recent progress. 

It was his eighth assist in all competitions this season, and he followed that up with a good ball for Lacazette to score in their Europa League match at Olympiacos on Thursday, his fifth in the competition.

Auba and Pepe have somewhat enjoyed success too, as the pair have been instrumental to how Arteta plays.

The Gabon international has largely been played on the left flank, but has the autonomy to play closer to the frontman.

This has been evident in his three goals under the new regime with the well-worked goal away at Crystal Palace in January the best illustration: an unmarked David Luiz advanced into the Eagles’ half; spotted and played in Mesut Ozil who’d taken up an inside right position and the German playmaker gave a one-time pass to Lacazette.

At this point, Auba had drifted in from his wide position and made a run beyond the Frenchman who spotted the pass, and played in the forward to score.

Pepe, on the other flank, hugs the touchline to maintain the width. Compared to his teammate on the left (usually Auba or Gabriel Martinelli), the Ivorian wideman seldom drifts in-field but has been rewarded twice already on occasions where he’s done so: with goals against Manchester United and Newcastle perfect examples of this.

Both goals, as regards the right winger’s late runs into the box, were somewhat similar as he ghosted in from his flank to finish from close range.

This hasn’t been coincidental and it’s clearly an instruction from the manager and the West African wideman is reaping the rewards: Pepe had scored just once from open play in the league all season – against West Ham United – but has now scored twice, in similar fashion too, since Arteta took charge two months ago.

While he can still be guilty of losing possession frequently, the 24-year-old’s evidently taking the Spanish manager’s instructions on board and his goal return can only get better.

Everton vs Arsenal in December will probably go down as one of the lifeless games of 2019/20, but two months on, both sides are already showing glimpses of understanding their new bosses’ instructions.

Results may have been inconsistent for the Gunners, but their organisation with and without the ball has been evident.

Indeed, unlike under Emery, there also seems to be a clear idea of how Arteta wants his side to play, which has somewhat pacified Gooners, who have rarely seen their club win games this term.

Aubameyang, Pepe and Saka are all showing signs of grasping the ideas of their new trainer, and it’s clear they’ll be vital for the Gunners both domestically and in Europe if last year’s Europa League finalists are to meet this year’s targets.

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