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After a season of gentle optimism, global improvement and reasons to believe, it felt as if it was all going to come down to this. The question was if Mikel Arteta’s best José Mourinho impression after the North London derby, ostentatiously avoiding explicit comment and covering for his Arsenal players by making himself the story, was to have the desired effect.
In a season of the Spaniard’s team providing half-answers to many, they did it again at St James’ Park. They had the guts but they lacked the nerve required of them on a Monday night that was always going to be more challenging than some suggested. Tottenham’s follow-up win, laboriously prised from Burnley at Sunday lunchtime, had knocked the ball flush into their court. The schedule and the occasion demanded and, if ever there was a night for Arsenal to show they really had changed and were becoming a team of substance, then this was it.
If they were looking for an idyllic retreat to recover from Thursday’s ordeal, though, this was never going to be it. This was not quite the bear pit they had faced (and which had initially inspired them) in N19 last week but it was not a million miles away from it as the game kicked off, in an arena brought back to its buoyant best since the late autumn exit of Mike Ashley – with a crowd ready to hail its Newcastle United side’s sharp revival in 2022 ahead of a summer full of unfamiliar optimism.
The home fans chanted with insistence and the visitors could have done with some of their certainty. The suspicion was Aaron Ramsdale’s heartily-cheered slip in the opening seconds, when making his inaugural clearance of the evening, pointed the way to forthcoming mishap and Arsenal began nervily. The inclusion of Ben White and Gabriel in defence had increased pre-match optimism that they arrived in the north with poise and fortitude, even if there was a suspicion that Arteta was taking a justifiable gamble on their fitness.
The creaking joints of the back four, it turned out, were elsewhere. In the early stages Takehiro Tomiyasu peered warily over his shoulder at the lurking Allan Saint-Maximin and, if he was gazing in the right direction, it was perhaps at the wrong man, as the home side exploited all sorts of space behind the right-back through an advancing Matt Targett and Callum Wilson. It was in this corridor of uncertainty that the returning White picked up an eighth-minute booking after he failed to spot the run of Wilson quickly enough and clipped him over.
It was clear that Newcastle were not here to milk the acclaim gently, as a testy exchange between Wilson and Gabriel in the far corner before the 20-minute mark had emphasised. They pushed their visitors back with increasing rhythm and one wondered how Arteta might have appreciated a player of the personality of Newcastle’s newly-crowned club player of the year Joelinton in the centre of the pitch, ball-winning and driving his team forward with vigour. What Arsenal did do is defend with heart, with White clearing from in front of the line from a low Emil Krafth delivery.
The early ring rust gave way to genuine resolve, even if the ability to provide threat at the other end was thin on the ground. Arsenal repelled the home side’s first-half set-pieces with courage and conviction, which was a good job as there were plenty of them to face.
At the other end a couple of typically rapid bursts from Bukayo Saka were the Gunners’ best way of escaping their own half and moving up the pitch, with the England winger their sole means of attacking threat. Dan Burn’s block from a Saka cross shot was the first time that Arsenal made a truly threatening sortie into the home side’s penalty box before he again cut in and drew a save, albeit a comfortable one, from Martin Dúbravka.
The Arsenal manager decided early in the second half that there was certainly not enough of the required invention with Gabriel Martinelli promptly introduced to replace the near-invisible Emile Smith Rowe, and immediately the Brazilian added some zest to his team. Yet Wilson’s opener, created by the inexorable Joelinton’s burst down the left – in the gap left by the struggling Tomiyasu, who had exited late in the first half - and craftily snaffled at the near post, snatched the momentum from under them.
Arteta, a typically twitchy presence on the touchline throughout, threw the kitchen sink at it, with the introduction of Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepé leaving his team with something resembling a front five. Urgency did not equal fluency and it was the home side, arguably the worst side in the division until one of the more sensible and incisive January transfer windows in recent memory, who found the greater clarity and carried the more menace.
Worse was to come when Bruno Guimarães, an erstwhile Arsenal target, heroically blocked a Martin Ødegaard shot at one end and almost immediately tucked in a second after Ramsdale had foiled the excellent Wilson. Arteta and company were sunk and, if there could be little doubt over their will, they were taught a lesson in canniness by a side still forging their own personality.