We kicked off the new Premier League season with a hard-fought win at Newcastle on Sunday.
Here are four of the main talking points from a satisfying afternoon in the North East:
WILLOCK IN THE HOLE
Having excelled in pre-season with a string of excellent performances as both a deep-lying midfielder and also in a more advanced role, Joe Willock was rewarded with a start in the No 10 position here. The 19-year-old made his first Premier League start at St James’ Park two seasons ago, and will be hoping to establish himself as a key part of Unai Emery’s squad this term – and he underlined his case with an effective showing here. Full of pace and power, one run up the left flank to beat three players drew rich applause from the travelling fans, while Unai Emery was off his feet to praise Willock when he later raced back to slide in and win possession from Shelvey. This was another big step in the right direction for this talented teen.
Unai Emery may be yet to confirm who our club captain is this season, but it was noteworthy that Granit Xhaka – many people’s favourite to claim the armband – was given the nod here. The Swiss international was named captain of former club Borussia Moenchengladbach at the age of 22, and has taken the armband with his national team on occasion too, so his leadership qualities are clear. He performed well in the North East with the armband on his 100th Premier League appearance, and when his team needed some calm authority right at the death, he made a good run down the touchline and won a foul in the corner to shave some time off the clock. It was sensible play from an experienced performer, who will have surely boosted his chances of securing the captaincy.
A CLEAN SHEET ON THE ROAD
One game, one away win and, perhaps most notably, one away clean sheet. We only did it once last season, so Unai Emery will be delighted to have immediately claimed a shutout first up in challenging conditions at St James’ Park. Calum Chambers excelled last season at the base of loan club Fulham’s midfield, and he was similarly impressive in the heart of the defence alongside Sokratis. Newcastle new boy Joelinton had two half chances in the first half, but after that he struggled to make an impact – and much of that was down to a rock-solid partnership between our centre backs. There was much to encourage our head coach from our defensive display here.
THE NEW BOYS GET THEIR CHANCE
It was noticeable just how strong our bench was at St James’ Park for this opening game of the season. Having joined over the summer, it perhaps came too soon for Nicolas Pepe, Dani Ceballos, Gabriel Martinelli and David Luiz to start here, but the first three did get their chance off the bench. In truth, it was tough for any to make a major impact when the job in hand was to hold out for a hard-fought victory but there were flashes from them all to suggest they will make their mark this term. Pepe, our record signing, had fans on social purring about a fake shot, Dani Ceballos looked a smooth, inventive performer going forward while Martinelli was full of running when he came on. More signs of encouragement for Emery on a satisfying afternoon.