We kicked-off 2019 with a thrilling 4-1 win over Fulham at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday - but what did we learn from our Premier League outing?
XHAKA THE ATTACKER
Granit Xhaka scored his third goal of the season and it was something of a collector’s item in that the ball wasn’t smashed in from distance. ‘Xhakaboom’ wasn’t required against Fulham; instead, a neat first touch and a cool finish did the trick as Granit ghosted into the box to get on the end of Alex Iwobi’s cross. Aaron Ramsey has made a name for that kind of run and we saw it a number of times from Granit against Fulham - certainly until Aaron came off the bench. Granit went close to a second goal just before half-time - denied by a fine defensive block - and bravely headed down inside the box to set up a chance for Alex Lacazette. Granit’s eye for goal is definitely improving - he’s got three in 20 games this season, after three in his previous 70 appearances.
PASS OR CLEARANCE?
We’ve had half a season to get used to Unai Emery’s philosophy, and perhaps the element that most animates our fans is the tactic of passing the ball out from the back. The intention is clear - to suck in the opposition and play through them to create opportunities at the other end. There are anxious moments and that transmits itself to the fans, who might prefer to see the ball cleared long to avert immediate danger. However, the evidence shows that we lose the ball far more frequently that way. In the first half against Fulham, Bernd Leno’s distribution in his own half was almost perfect - 11 completed passes from 12 attempts. In contrast, when he cleared the ball into the Fulham half we lost it five times out of six. To sum up: if you want possession, pass it short.
It’s a testament to Hector Bellerin that his absence has been keenly felt in recent weeks. Hector has a vital role as an attacking outlet as well as a defensive cog, and the right wing-back role requires a huge engine to make forward bursts, recovery runs - and repeat. Enter Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Ainsley didn’t have a great time at Brighton on Boxing Day, surrendering possession more than he would have liked after coming on as a sub. But he was perhaps the only positive to emerge from Anfield after scoring his first goal for the club, and his stock rose further against Fulham. Athletic enough to cover that wide expanse on the right flank, and skilful enough to steal a yard of space on his opponent, Ainsley showed some lovely touches. He linked up well with teammates, drifted past markers and spotted opportunities to get forward, while not shirking his defensive responsibilities. Ainsley’s preferred position is central midfield, but he has the credentials to thrive on the right.
PAYING OUR RESPECTS
The fans and players stood in unison on New Year’s Day to pay tribute to Peter Hill-Wood, who died last week at the age of 82. Our former chairman oversaw a period of unparalleled success at the club, presiding over the appointments of George Graham and Arsene Wenger, as well as playing a key part of the formation of the Premier League. Peter’s enormous contribution to the club was recognised, first with applause and then with a respectfully-observed period of silence. He would have appreciated what followed on the pitch - four goals, three points and plenty of style.
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