Saturday, August 29, 2015

Match Preview, Newcastle v. Arsenal: Find a New Tune upon Tyne

Arsenal’s visit to Newcastle United on Saturday will challenge the Gunners to get unblocked in front of goal.

The major similarity between this campaign’s first three matches and previous seasons’ starts has been the Gunners' ineffectiveness in front of goal. In general, Arsenal have been much more active offensively, taking 61 shots. (As 7AM Kickoff points out here, Arsenal have the highest shot total of any club in a top-five European league.)

A substantial majority of those shots (41) has come from within the opposition penalty area; that’s more dangerous shooting than Arsenal have produced during the first three matches of any of the past five seasons, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app. The overall result has been 18 shots on goal in three matches, a high absolute number by the standards of the past five seasons' starts.

The problem is Arsenal’s low proportion of shots on frame. By managing just 30 percent of shots on goal in its first three matches, the team has, for the fifth time in the past six seasons, failed to put more than 35 percent of its shots on target. By contrast, over the full 2014-15 season, Arsenal put 37 of its shots on goal.

Newcastle is a tricky opponent under these circumstances. The Magpies have allowed 53 shots in three matches, with 18 of those (34 percent) on goal; they’ve blocked 19 shots (36 percent), including eight last weekend when they held Manchester United to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford.

Given this dynamic, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger may make some changes to his attacking lineup. He has the speedy options of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to unsettle the Newcastle defense, which has been already troubled by the quickness of Swansea’s Jefferson Montero and Manchester United’s Memphis DePay.

Wenger could also add some zest from the midfield in recognition that Newcastle have not presented much of a scoring threat: Their 25 shots rank lowest in the Premier League. This might tempt Wenger to move Aaron Ramsey from his spot upfield into one of the central midfield positions.

The riskiness of that decision depends in large part on the health of Arsenal’s two first-choice center backs. At last report, Per Mertesacker remained ill, and Laurent Koscielny faced a fitness test on his back. Some accounts suggest that Koscielny trained with the first team on Friday and should replace Calum Chambers in Arsenal’s lineup at Newcastle.

Would that provide enough stability for Wenger to break up the central midfield pair of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla?

Or, perhaps more to the point, does Mertesacker’s continued absence dictate the retention of Cazorla to aid Arsenal’s transition from defense to attack? Without Mertesacker’s clever passing, Arsenal probably need Cazorla’s trickery to move quickly upfield.

But Cazorla doesn’t offer the threat on goal that Ramsey does from the center of midfield. Cazorla’s two shots on goal in six attempts in the first three matches are in line with the team’s ineffective rate thus far.

Whatever players Wenger sends out early Saturday, bucking the trend and (re)discovering the knack in front of goal will be the charge. Another scoreless display will intensify the questions.

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