Monday night's clash sees Newcastle making the long trip south to London, to take on Arsenal. Michael Cox and Alan Thompson preview the action...
"This seems an ideal contest for Mesut Ozil, a game where Arsenal will dominate possession, and where he won’t have to track back"
Arsenal v Newcastle
Monday 20:00, Sky Sports Football.
Match Odds: Arsenal 1.42/5, Newcastle 10.09/1, The Draw 5.39/2.
Having spent most of the season playing catch-up, Arsenal suddenly look good value for a top four finish. Their remaining games are exclusively against sides outside the top six, and while they will face some tricky away trips between now and May, their record at home against smaller teams over the past couple of seasons has largely been very good.
This meeting between two Spanish coaches is likely to be a clash between attack and defence. Rafael Benitez, having used 4-2-3-1 throughout his career, has switched to a more conservative 5-4-1 system that sees Newcastle playing with ten men behind the ball for long periods. Newcastle will retreat into a defensive block quickly, and only sporadically counter-attack.
Ozil likely to start
The question, then, is about how Arsenal seek to break down this deep defence. The major dilemma for Unai Emery is whether or not to field Mesut Ozil. The German has been in and out of the side - and squad - over the past couple of months but this seems an ideal contest for him, a game where Arsenal will dominate possession, where he won't have to track back, and where they'll need someone to provide the killer pass on the edge of the final third.
Ozil therefore seems likely to start in the number 10 position, behind both Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Those two have a great relationship off the pitch and combine well together on it, but the issue with playing them both is that sometimes Arsenal find themselves undermanned elsewhere. That won't be a problem here against a Newcastle side committing few resources into attack, so it looks like an all-star front three for Arsenal.
Wing-backs for both sides
In deeper positions, Emery could use a back four or a three-man defence, but the latter seems more likely because both Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal, his best full-back pairing, are both out. Their replacements, Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, are better when fielded as wing-backs with license to push forward more, and Kolasinac's powerful runs have created a variety of chances this season.
Besides, Arsenal are also lacking numbers in midfield. Lucas Torreira is suspended, while Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey are both considered doubtful. One of them will probably start alongside Matteo Guendouzi, but Emery is slightly struggling for a third central midfielder.
That means a back three of Laurent Koscielny, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno has been in good form recently, particularly in the draw at Spurs.
Newcastle with defensive selection problems
Benitez has a problem at the back, with Fabian Schar out and Jamaal Lascelles doubtful. There are still options, with Ciaran Clark, Federico Fernandez, Paul Dummett and Florian Lejeune all options.
Out wide there will be interesting battles between DeAndre Yedlin and Kolasinac, and Matt Ritchie and Maitland-Niles. Neither Newcastle wing-back is entirely secure defensively.
The four-man midfield will feature Arsenal youth product Isaac Hayden alongside either Jonjo Shelvey or Mo Diame, depending upon whether Benitez wants long-range passing or more energy and forward running. Out wide, Ayoze Perez and newcomer Miguel Almiron offer the counter-attacking threat, with the former able to push upfront alongside lone striker Salomon Rondon if required, although the Venezuelan will probably spend long periods upfront alone with little support.
I think this will be a relatively comfortable victory for Arsenal. Newcastle can be stubborn defensively but they'll offer little attacking threat. I'll back Arsenal To Win To Nil at 2.56/4.
The Betfair Trader's View - Alan Thompson
Since Arsenal moved from Highbury to The Emirates, Newcastle United have visited on 13 occasions in all competitions, winning once (0-1 2010/11) and drawing once (1-1 2206/07). Since Andy Carroll’s winning header stole that sinlge victory in November 2010, the Magpies have lost all six by an aggregate score of 18-6.
It doesn’t look like they will get much return this time either, Unai Emery’s side are in formidable home form, taking 41 from a possible 48 points so far this season. The only home points they have dropped have been on the opening weekend against Manchester City and draws against Liverpool and Wolves.
Despite managing to keep the defeats down to a single goal on their visits to some of the top sides, excluding the recent 4-0 thrashing at Liverpool, Rafael Benitez’s men have still come away empty handed from Old Trafford (2-0 up at the break lost 3-2), Spurs (lost 1-0), Chelsea (lost 2-1) and Man City (lost 2-1). They are also yet to win away from home in the Premier League in 2019, and I don’t see that changing against an in-form Gunners.
Arsenal brushed aside an in-form Manchester United side on their last Premier League outing so I am expecting them to win this by at least the same margin. I will be backing Arsenal -1 & -1.5 in the Asian Handicap at evens 2.01/1.