Football fan chants can rarely be relied on for accuracy. Matt Ritchie has never been sighted in public with enchanted headwear. Dwight Gayle does not always score goals. And, thankfully, Gareth Southgate has never had Jamaal Lascelles’ number.
However, just occasionally terrace cries are unnervingly close to home. And such was the case when, 70 minutes in, a (miraculously) packed away end belted out “we’re rich and we’re effing shit”. Both are true. Both, sadly, are likely to remain so for a while yet.
This was the sort of regulation home victory a whole generation of Newcastle followers have never been able to identify with. Once Arsenal got ahead, they knew full well the points were wrapped up. If it felt like there were gears unexplored, that’s because there were.
Bukayo Saka’s opener would most likely have been enough, but substitute Gabriel Martinelli made sure, doubling his side’s advantage with only his second touch. A comeback? Chance would be a fine thing. It was just reward for a dominant if not rampant home performance, evidence of a new-found bite under Mikel Arteta. Last week’s undoing at Anfield was seemingly a blip. For large swathes, Arsenal stroked the ball about at a pace befitting a leisure centre clash between civil service retirees on a Tuesday night.
It might have been different if United had been awarded a penalty when Fabian Schar went to ground under pressure from Martin Odegaard 30 minutes in. Var had a look; nowt doing. That’s straw clutching though. It would have been soft, albeit they’ve been given.
Another strong appeal came after the break when Callum Wilson – a largely isolated figure – got in behind Arsenal’s back-line. It was a smart piece of centre forward play that was, in truth, matched by equally smart shoulder-to-shoulder defending. Wilson never really had control of the ball. Naturally, that came moments before the hosts’ second.
Newcastle’s woeful run at the Emirates continues, although the correlation with pointlessness has less to do with the venue and more to do with years of neglect.
Positives? Well, there was a game plan, Eddie Howe reverting to the back four he has favoured for the majority of his Premier League career. The logic was sound. Match Arsenal’s 4-4-1-1. Contain, and maybe surprise.
But the difference in quality showed, perhaps illustrated best by the remits of the respective full-backs. Arsenal’s – Nuno Tavares and Takehiro Tomiyasu – overlapped merrily, regularly taking up post in United territory. Emil Kraft and Matt Ritchie on the other hand, held their positions, content to feed the winger in front of them and then drop off.
And to United’s credit it worked for in the first-half. For all Arsenal’s possession, largely they were restricted to wayward pot-shots from distance. Tavares was the guilty party a handful of times; perhaps he was promised a pair of trainers if he’d opened the scoring. That aside, it was largely a compact, tight forty-five.
There were two key moments, both involving outstanding goalkeeping and woodwork. Newcastle’s best chance came when Jonjo Shelvey steadied and took aim. From the edge of the box his shot appeared corner bound; Aaron Ramsdale – at full stretch – somehow tipped it onto the bar. Trend these days is for keepers to go with their top hand, but Ramsdale called correctly to go to his left, with his left.
At the other end, only Pierre Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will know how he hit the post from 2 yards out. Miss of the season? Certainly, a candidate. Aubameyang – who was quiet otherwise – without that clinical touch will find himself surplus to requirements sooner rather than later. The goal was literally at his mercy, after Martin Dubravka had expertly denied Emile Smith-Rowe’s header.
The half’s only moment of quality came when Albert Sambi Lokonga pinged a glorious diagonal ball that blindsided Ritchie. Fortunately, Saka failed to make proper contact and his strike squirted wide. Dubravka had also denied Martin Odegaard’s free-kick, abeit it was an easier stop than the acrobatics suggested. These days, catching appears frowned about. Still, the Slovak’s return at Karl Darlow’s expense brought a reassuring presence. Alas those in front of him did not pick up the vibe.
At the break, Howe and Jason Tindall would have nodded contently at each other before asking for more of the same. Arteta’s message would have been quite different; cut the lethargy, and cut the low percentage efforts from ridiculous distances.
The desired impact, from an Arsenal perspective, was had. Once Emile Kraft was booked for a cynical foul on Tavares early in the second period, both full-backs were precariously placed. That only invited the pressure on. Lascelles too saw yellow for flying into a challenge. Play was allowed to continue and for a few moments, the away end held its collective breath. Fortunately, once the phase was over, a card was brandished and Lascelles’ suspension for Norwich confirmed. Phew.
Black & White Saturday? ⚫⚪
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) November 27, 2021
The defending has to improve. It cannot get worse. For the first, Tavares for once found himself inside the area rather than shooting before arrival. Given enough space and time to have speed-read the matchday programme, he turned, slid in Saka, who fired home from a narrow angle. Martinelli’s finish was sublime, watching Tomiyasu’s first-time ball dropping over his shoulder. Again though, he was socially distanced. Martinelli is a fans favourite but Arteta has not quite found a way to shoehorn him into the side more regularly. His finishing is top-drawer though.
Miguel Almiron’s introduction added some much-needed pace, with the last fifteen minutes or so at least seeing some attacking intent. Without a centre forward to bring on, Howe was as hamstrung as Dwight Gayle. More of that desire will be needed come Tuesday, which really has become must win. Whether the Shelvey – Joe Willock midfield experiment can continue is dubious. The latter, while not the worst on display, only served to prove Arteta right to let him go.
13 winless games. Only Derby County (00/01) have ever survived from such a perilous position. The legal standard of proof in this country differs depending on the type of case. Apply them to Newcastle’s chances of relegation and the civil standard – a lower threshold ‘balance of probabilities’ – has been met. Come next Saturday, it could be beyond reasonable doubt.