In some ways, the fixture could draw parallels to Arsenal’s tame attempts against Liverpool last week. Newcastle were set up to frustrate and there was a clear agenda in trying to snatch a goal, but as Eddie Howe will soon learn, this is a futile way to try and win football matches. This isn’t to slander Arteta’s approach last week; instead, I think he was simply trying to mitigate Liverpool’s quality with what he had available. In Howe’s case, his overly-cautious approach meant Arsenal had little to worry about and the only reason his side were level at half time was luck rather than fortitude. There’s a difference between 3rd-placed Liverpool and 20th-placed Newcastle and there were times during the first half yesterday where you’d be entitled to worry but in the end, Arsenal’s result belied the performance because 2-0 was kind on Newcastle.
With Odegaard coming into the side, I expected more incision – especially in the final third – but the low block coupled with the dreaded lunchtime kickoff apathy made for barely palatable viewing. Arsenal have been in this situation before when teams come to the Emirates looking for a draw but for a team that is still far from dominant, Newcastle’s reluctance to engage also hurt the home side. In stark contrast to Arteta’s increasingly customary “fast starts”, Arsenal struggled to move the ball with any kind of pace or conviction and besides a select few players, they weren’t at the races. After the game, Arteta was quick to point to the slowness in build-up, a lack of threat in behind and a failure to occupy certain spaces and I can’t disagree with anything he said. Given the side’s turnaround early into the second half, it’s also reassuring to see his analysis align with what we as fans saw because this hasn’t always been the case. That’s also not to say he was simply regurgitating some sort of post hoc filler, because the changes we saw after the break were far from random.
After the first half wastefulness, an injection of pace and a small piece of tactical ingenuity in flank swapping was enough to flummox Newcastle and despite his eventual injury, Saka’s cleverly worked and well finished opener was enough to give Arsenal breathing space for the rest of the game. Said injury also paved the way for a long overdue but welcome wonder-goal from Martinelli. On the face of it, “wonder-goal” isn’t necessarily the first thing that springs to mind but such was the quality, the difficulties involved in applying that finish, the timing of the run and the circumstances, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration. He’s been fighting for minutes all season and this was one of the few times he knew he actually had some headroom and he didn’t exactly waste time getting bedded into the game. There were other options available from the bench but the fact that Martinelli got the nod would suggest he’s been going about his business in the right way in training. As a player, one of the hardest things I found was getting your “touch” right after coming off the bench and Martinelli managed to put that away with his second touch, some 93 seconds after coming on and that alone is impressive to me.
After his culpability in Liverpool’s second, I wondered if that was it for Tavares’ spell in the side but he was once again given the nod ahead of Tierney. Nuno may be frustrating when he takes notes from Thomas Partey’s Book of Improbable Shots but it’s easily forgiven when you see how much grief he caused Newcastle. Where energy was mostly lacking in the first half, Arsenal had a constant; he was bounding forward any chance he got and was constantly looking to disrupt Newcastle’s stale low block. It would have been easy to leave him out and given Kieran Tierney’s fan-favourite status and the quality he can bring, it was a seemingly natural segue to reintroduce a player some have billed as the future captain. I think Arteta deserves some credit on that front because it would have been an easy decision to make but he was able to look beyond the defining mistake at Anfield and despite his seniority, Tierney hasn’t been himself this season.
In the end, Arsenal’s opener can be largely attributed to Tavares’ war of attrition, with Krafth first landing himself in the book because he couldn’t compete with the Roadrunner. Less than 10 minutes later, Arsenal were ahead when Nuno, Smith Rowe and Saka combined to find that opener. I don’t want to labour the point too much but I think it’s important to stress how much of an impact bookings have on defenders’ minds, especially when they have maniacs like Tavares running at them for 90 minutes. Once you’re in the book, you don’t have a professional foul to fall back on if they beat you and invariably, it’s only natural to end up giving the opposition some extra space.
As redemptions go, the same can also be said for Lokonga, who also struggled at Anfield despite impressing in the first half. His diagonal to Saka was one of the few shining moments of the first half yesterday, and on another day, that may well have been converted. He’s never been one to shy away from his responsibilities and despite his torrid second half at Anfield, he was able to take it in his stride and make a stamp on the game when others weren’t able. I also wasn’t aware he could actually do that, so that’s nice. For the price we paid for these two and Tomiyasu (who had another stellar performance despite his complete inability to actually cross a ball), Arsenal’s summer business looks better with each passing matchday. The same can be said for Ben White, who despite being in an entirely different transfer bracket, was an important cog in our approach on the day.
There’s probably some boring VAR nonsense that may or may not warrant a discussion. I thought Odegaard was lucky to not be punished for a clumsy and blatant tug but Newcastle had been looking for opportunities to go down all afternoon (see Callum Wilson ad finitum). In the sniveling snippet I saw from Eddie Howe, the issue he cited wasn’t with the Odegaard challenge but instead the legimate shoulder charge from Tavares that preceded Arsenal’s second. It’s a nice narrative to cling to, the old “it could have been 1-1 but ended up 2-0” but the reality is you’re never going to get those decisions if you’re looking for it all afternoon. It’s also hilarious to take issue with that, not only when you’ve played with 11 men behind the ball all afternoon but when you fail to neglect Lascelles’ challenge on Martinelli which is a penalty and red card every day of the week in my book. Anyway, Howe has got enough on his plate and given Newcastle’s new ownership, I couldn’t give a shit about their tears.
With Old Trafford looming, I’m glad Arsenal are back on the straight and narrow and despite their change in leadership, now is still a good opportunity to put some daylight between us and them before they get their affairs in order. They might be a stupid beast but their finances mean they’re a stupid beast you can never ignore and they still appear to be the most likely vacancy in the Top Four race, which is still well and truly on. As far as I’m concerned, they’re still long overdue a humbling and I’d love nothing more than for Arsenal to inflict the same kind of misery that Liverpool managed two weeks ago. We can dream…