Fresh from a two-week winter break and a warm-weather training camp in Dubai, Arsenal returned to the Emirates to lock horns with a Newcastle United side only one place behind the North London outfit on goal difference. Both sides came into the clash level on 31 points in 11th and 12th respectively, standings not many could have predicted at the start of the season.
The race for the Champions League places has reached a crucial point in the season, and while top four seems like a step too far for the Gunners now, the news that Manchester City have been banned from European competitions for the next two years has had much greater implications on the league. As it currently stands, fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur occupy the last CL spot, and if Arteta’s side are to mount any sort of a challenge to break back into Europe’s elite, draws need to be converted into wins.
The big team news from the Arsenal camp was the inclusion of 20-year-old striker Eddie Nketiah in the starting line-up ahead of Alexandre Lacazette, with the Frenchman having suffered a serious goal drought in recent weeks. Dani Ceballos was also given the nod to partner Granit Xhaka in midfield, and Nicolas Pepe’s return meant that Gabriel Martinelli would have to settle for a place on the bench.
As far as the visitors were concerned, Steve Bruce would place faith in all three of his January signings as Danny Rose, Nabil Bentaleb and Valentino Lazaro all made the first XI.
Bruce’s side began the game very much on the front foot, and had it not been for the heroics of Bernd Leno, Ceballos very nearly marked his first PL game since November with an own goal. The Gunners completely lacked any sort of tempo in the opening quarter, with Bukayo Saka’s curling effort the only real chance Arsenal could muster.
Newcastle’s deadly pace on the break with Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin was causing the Arsenal midfield all sorts of problems, but the Magpies’ lack of a cutting edge was letting them down. Arteta’s side began to string a few more passes together as the first half went on, with Mesut Ozil at the heart of most of them, and the German nearly provided an assist for Nketiah but Martin Dubravka was equal to his first-time effort.
As the first half came to an end, Bruce would have been much more grateful for Lee Mason’s whistle than Arteta; the Spaniard’s side finished the half the stronger but just lacked a clinical finish. Jamie Redknapp said at half-time that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looked “lost” on the left-hand-side, and I definitely agree with him. Nketiah has shown plenty of promise, but not playing your top scorer as an out-and-out striker is a big mistake and you do wonder if he would have buried the chance that the young Englishman shot straight at Dubravka…
Arsenal began the second half much like they ended the first and should have made the breakthrough a few minutes after the restart, but Nketiah could only watch his effort cannon off the crossbar after some terrific work from Ozil, Pepe and Ceballos. But only four minutes later, their resilience would be rewarded.
A brilliant cross from Pepe landed firmly at the head of Aubameyang, who rose highest and directed his effort into the bottom corner with pinpoint accuracy. It’s almost as if playing a striker as a striker will lead to more goals? But there was hardly any time to dwell on that as Pepe went from provider to scorer only a couple of minutes later, following a cheeky nutmeg from Saka and a clinical left-footed finish.
As much of the UK has been weathering Storm Dennis as of late, Arsenal would prepare to weather the Newcastle onslaught, and in particular the blistering pace and tenacity of Saint-Maximin. The Frenchman was causing Hector Bellerin all sorts of problems throughout the game, and had his curling attempt not struck the post with 15 minutes to go, the Emirates crowd could have been in for a tense finale.
However, the game was done and dusted in the 90th minute as Ozil’s close-range effort was flapped by Dubravka into the net for the German’s first goal of the season. And just when things seemingly couldn’t get any better, Lacazette ended his goal drought in the final minute to put the cherry on the icing on the cake.
The Gunners deservedly chalked up their first league win since New Year’s Day, ending a run of four consecutive draws and moving back above Burnley into 10th. Newcastle remain in 12th with 31 points. Arteta’s side arguably put in their best performance of 2020 so far, and there’s plenty for the Arsenal faithful to feel positive about going into the business end of the season.
Saka, Ceballos and Ozil put in magnificent shifts all afternoon, Pepe returned to the starting line-up with three goal contributions, Aubameyang continues to prove indispensable up top, and Lacazette’s goal should unleash a newfound confidence within the French forward.
Next up, Arsenal travel to Olympiacos for the first leg of their Europa League round of 32 tie, while Newcastle have a week to recuperate before they meet Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.