This time, Mikel Arteta will find the cupboard bare if he tries raiding it for complaints. He had been enraged by the decisions that brought Arsenal’s defeat to Spurs but this time there can be no obscuring the fact that, when they could least afford to blink, his team did not turn up. Champions League qualification is still possible but only if they beat Everton while Tottenham, surpassing even their own jittery reputation, are overcome by relegated Norwich. It remains a season of progress and the evidence is that, in any case, they are not quite ready for a place among the elite. A hungrier Newcastle were superior throughout and must wonder what 2022-23 will bring if they continue operating with this intensity and verve; Ben White’s own goal and a late Bruno Guimarães strike settled the affair but Eddie Howe’s team could have scored several more.
One of the biggest difficulties for Arsenal at the outset was that, while Newcastle are bogged down in mid-table, this felt nothing like a dead rubber for the hosts. An electric atmosphere greeted the players, as did a flag display: the sense is that, when everyone reconvenes here in August, the Magpies’ prospects for the season will be transformed. Expensive new arrivals will doubtless be welcomed, as far as consciences allow, but this was an occasion to celebrate the work performed in heaving the existing crop to safety.
It was a relief for Arteta, then, that White and Gabriel Magalhaes were both passed fit. There was surely some element of risk, given both centre-backs had been struggling with hamstring problems, but Arsenal could barely afford kid gloves. If Nuno Tavares’ selection at left-back offset the resulting sense of stability, it did mean the defence had a balance it lacked in defeat at Spurs.
That did not stop it wobbling early on. Aaron Ramsdale has been a resounding success despite the nagging sense his exuberance may one day give rise to a costly blooper; it nearly occurred here, a casual attempt to play the ball out in the seventh minute seeing Miguel Almirón charge the ball down. Thankfully for Arsenal it rolled away from goal and Gabriel could hammer away.
Newcastle used every opportunity to test Arsenal’s defensive rustiness with the running of Callum Wilson, on his first start since December after recovering from injury. He had already asked questions of Gabriel twice when, one-on-one with White, his opponent hauled him down. White was booked; Guimarães whipped the free-kick beyond everyone and his side continued to set a resounding tempo.
Arsenal could get little going, White conceding possession easily to Guimarães on one occasion and Arteta glaring at Ramsdale when he had kicked waywardly on another. If those two are off beam it tends to be a warning sign; another came their way when Ramsdale got a hand to Sean Longstaff’s cross and, after Wilson nodded towards goal, Gabriel cleared. Newcastle were well on top and the din was deafening.
When Bukayo Saka found a way into proceedings he tried to quieten it, playing a one-two with Martin Ødegaard but seeing Dan Burn block. He then cut in and drew a save from Martin Dubravka that, although routine, suggested Arsenal were beginning to settle. A draw would be as useful as a defeat and it seemed imperative that their attack started to function.
They were generally second best in all areas, though, to Newcastle’s ferocity in the challenge. It reared up again when Guimarães, going in hard but fair, left Ødegaard in a heap and set Allan Saint-Maximin off. Ramsdale was alert to tip his drive wide; Ødegaard got up but Takehiro Tomiyasu had sustained a knock in the meantime and, while Arteta gathered his players for an impromptu team talk, Cédric Soares was deployed from the bench.
He must have been relieved that, soon afterwards, he had 15 minutes to deliver a few home truths. They needed to show more aggression but Eddie Nketiah overdid it within moments of the restart when he clattered into Fabian Schär, inflicting a head injury that caused the defender’s replacement by Jamaal Lascelles.
That was a concussion substitution; Arteta then made a conventional one in deploying Gabriel Martinelli for the quiet Emile Smith Rowe. The Brazilian immediately hinted he might offer the change in speed Arsenal required but, almost as quickly, his team were undone.
The goal was entirely deserved. Joelinton was sent surging down the left flank and, as Mohamed Elneny made a futile attempt to cover, fizzed a devilish cross towards the six-yard box. Wilson looked poised to reach it but White, stretching to intervene, got there first. He could only send the ball zipping beyond Ramsdale; St James’ Park erupted save for the contingent of Arsenal fans, up in the gods, who were watching their chances evaporate. Wilson nearly ended them but volleyed the outstanding Guimarães’ delivery just over.
Arteta sent on Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé, sacrificing two defenders, but Wilson came close with a spectacular effort from range and the substitute Jacob Murphy tested Ramsdale. Then Guimarães pounced after Ramsdale had denied Wilson; Arsenal were beaten fair and square.