Eddie Howe might have finally been able to take charge of Newcastle from the touchline, but his forlorn stare did little to disguise the misery unfolding in front of him. Arsenal’s momentum was brought to a shuddering halt at Liverpool last week but, despite initially struggling to prise open Newcastle’s rigid defence, they eventually cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory at the Emirates, as Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli scored second-half goals – even if an injury to the former will leave Mikel Arteta with cause for concern.
It was hardly a disastrous display from Newcastle, who were resilient for a while and are improving in small increments – despite Howe being unable to lead training since his appointment due to a positive Covid test – but they are already running short on time for slow progress. The blunt reality is the Magpies remain bottom of the Premier League, are still without a win this season, and need to source inspiration quickly.
In their defence, it was always going to be an uphill task to spark that turnaround here. Arsenal were well short of their best, but this was an important victory to show the strength of their progress and the top four is, for now at least, within touching distance, with only goal difference keeping them below West Ham.
Howe has promised to breathe new life into Newcastle’s play, but before the matter of beauty, there’s the necessity to simply make order out of the chaos. And so, fittingly, as the rain fell and the cold bit, Newcastle began by hunkering into a defensive shell with 11 players behind the ball, challenging Arsenal to find a chink of light. For all Arsenal’s command of possession, they initially struggled to yield any clear openings, with only Nuno Tavares making any inroads, barrelling on the overlap with precious little end product.
It took an exquisite chipped pass from Albert Sambi Lokonga to unlock Newcastle’s defence, with Saka sliding in at the back post and so nearly turning the ball in. Martin Odegaard, who replaced Alexandre Lacazette in the starting XI, won a free-kick with a wriggling run on the edge of the box, took it himself, and forced Martin Dubravka into a theatrical but ultimately comfortable save.
In fact, despite barely touching the ball, it was Newcastle who came closest early on. Callum Wilson was always poised for the counter-attack and twice came close to beating Arsenal’s high line. And on a rare venture into Arsenal’s half, Newcastle worked the ball to Jonjo Shelvey on the edge of the box, whose curling shot forced Aaron Ramsdale into a terrific save, flying high to his left and tipping the ball onto the crossbar.
Arsenal were in control but rarely imposing, their frustration beginning to simmer at the surface. And when they did finally forge a gilt-edged chance, it required all their absent creativity to spurn it. Bukayo Saka’s cross found Emile Smith Rowe unmarked but his header was fired straight at Dubravka from point-blank range. The ball fell perfectly at the feet of Aubameyang, but Arsenal’s captain somehow conspired to hit the post from all of two yards out. He stared at the sky in disbelief, the crowd groaned, and Tavares typified the limit to Arsenal’s imagination, lashing a succession of wild long-range shots into the stand.
But after the break, Arsenal’s impetus was refreshed. They attacked with fluidity, Tavares’ runs took on new focus, and before long the breakthrough arrived. In a fantastic 16-pass move, Smith Rowe weaved in off the left and played a patient set of passes on the edge of the box before Tavares’ first-time flick set Saka free in the box. His finish, thrashed across the face of goal, was emphatic.
It left Newcastle with no choice but to throw numbers forwards. Their cause was helped by an injury to Saka, who limped off to a standing ovation and was replaced by Martinelli, and the simplest of long balls almost provided an immediate response. Wilson wrestled with Gabriel, won the footrace but lost his balance at Ramsdale’s feet. The striker’s appeals were dismissed by Stuart Attwell, and Wilson was still remonstrating as Arsenal scored their second. Ben White found Takehiro Tomiyasu in space on the touchline, and the full-back’s pass looped high over Newcastle’s backline and was met on the volley by Martinelli, who guided the ball deftly into the far corner. It was a fantastic finish and a sharp reminder of the Brazilian’s quality, having largely been starved of minutes this season.
To their credit, Newcastle didn’t lie down and fought until the end, but their hopes of mounting a comeback were always half-hearted. A tame curling shot by Allan Saint-Maximin barely caused Ramsdale to flinch and a heavy touch denied Martinelli the chance of a second on the break. Moments later, he was appealing for a penalty to no avail after being caught with an elbow by Jamaal Lascelles, but it was trivial in terms of the result. Howe walked over to the away fans to thank them for their support at full-time, but there can be few doubts over the size of the task in front of him.
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