It was easy enough in the end as Arsenal collected their customary home win over Newcastle in the Premier League – that’s 10 in a row now and seven since the visitors managed so much as a goal.
After this routine 2-0 defeat the major doubt about number 11 happening next season is whether Newcastle are even here to collect their usual punishment.
This was for the most part a strangely low-key game. Arsenal’s recent confidence had clearly been sapped by taking their own traditional beating at Anfield last week, and clearly there are limits to how fast Eddie Howe is going to be able to shift the prevailing mood at Newcastle. Right now the takeover almost feels like a weight around Newcastle’s neck. The inherently controversial nature of the whole thing is part of it – never more obvious than this week when their captain Jamaal Lascelles was constantly if unsuccessfully standing still and appealing for offside with a rainbow armband on his outstretched arm.
But it also brings so much pressure. All the unpleasantness will – in most fans’ eyes anyway – be worth it if glory comes back to Newcastle. That glory is tantalisingly close yet far from guaranteed and could slip away forever if they can’t drag themselves out of this current crisis.
Without a win in their opening 13 games, all the talk has been about a season-defining January transfer window. Never mind that – with Newcastle where they are and the busy Christmas period, January is an absolute age away. Newcastle have a season-defining week; if their position doesn’t look markedly better after games against Norwich and Burnley over the next seven days then it’s hard to see what good January will do. They could be eight points adrift of safety tonight.
Things look far rosier for Arsenal, though. They were short of their best here, labouring for long periods to break down a porous Newcastle defence and too often ponderous on the ball. But they were still much the better side and this was very much a professional job well done after last week’s setbacks.
There was no doubt about the identity of Arsenal’s catalyst, with Bukayo Saka once again taking on the burden of senior player with such effortless ease that it is genuinely hard to reconcile with the fact he turned 20 only a couple of months ago.
While so much of Arsenal’s play lacked the necessary urgency and snap, Saka was always the exception. He created a glorious chance for Emile Smith Rowe in the first half, which led to an even more glorious one for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and always looked the likeliest gamebreaker.
When the goal came just before the hour it was no surprise that it was the result of his own smart finish and, at last, some quick incisive football from the Gunners. Nuno Tavares was involved at the start and end of a slick passing move which came almost immediately after some pretty obvious urging from Mikel Arteta on the sidelines. The timing of Saka’s run and the precision of his finish were both first class.
He was injured soon after and, with games in the north-west at Manchester United and Everton to come for a side now level on points with fourth-placed West Ham, Arsenal must hope it isn’t serious. He seemed happy enough on the bench in the closing stages of the game anyway, but without him it’s far from certain Arsenal would have found a way through.
Saka’s utter centrality to everything Arsenal did was shown when he was demonstrably injured, had twice signalled to the bench that he needed to be replaced, that he was still involved twice in a neat passing move in which he made sharp and incisive passes to a team-mate in a game when Arsenal had quite often lacked that specific quality.
His replacement, Gabriel Martinelli, did at least pick up where Saka had left off with an even better goal after a clever pass over the top from Arsenal’s other full-back, Takehiro Tomiyasu.
It was far from an easy finish as the ball drifted over his shoulder for a first-time sidefoot volley past the keeper, but it was in the end an easy afternoon for Arsenal, with Newcastle only really offering anything beyond some long-range Jonjo Shelvey stingers after the game was already lost.
It did make you wonder about the tactics. While this would generally be filed under “Not The Sort of Fixture That Will Define Their Season” for relegation battlers, Newcastle’s case is slightly different. Time and games are starting to run out; they need to be at the very least in contact with the rest when January rolls around or even that advantage will be lost.
Arsenal were not at their best and surely vulnerable after last week. More to the point, Newcastle’s better players (such as they are) are their attacking ones. Even against an off-colour Arsenal they never really looked like holding on for a first clean sheet of the season; but they might have been able to hurt them at the other end with a bit more intent.
Clearly we can expect more from Newcastle in those two huge games to come, but right now they look a forlorn side full of players marking time, fully expecting to be relegated, replaced or both.
For Arsenal, though, there is now much genuine cause for excitement. There is a top-four spot there for somebody this season, and there is absolutely no reason right now that it can’t be them. Unless that Saka injury actually is a serious one.