Aubameyang’s Arsenal winner gives Steve Bruce losing start at Newcastle

A deft second-half finish from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang gave Arsenal a 1-0 victory over Newcastle at St James’ Park

A little bit of a boycott and an awful lot of rain ensured that Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United reign began in downbeat mode as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang emphasised his enduring importance to Arsenal by cutting through the gloom and registering an exquisitely incisive winner.

If it hardly bodes well for Bruce that the chaotic preamble to that goal involved him screaming ‘what the fuck’s happening’ as his new Netherlands left-back, Jetro Willems, replaced Jonjo Shelvey and immediately began charging around in midfield, these are very early days.

Willems was meant to step in at left wing-back but it transpired that tactical instructions were lost in translation and he did not realise Matt Ritchie was shifting positions to assume Shelvey’s central role.

Two minutes after order was finally restored, the Eintracht Frankfurt loanee proved the victim of another misunderstanding, with Paul Dummett this time, before his surrender of possession prefaced an anti-climactic defeat.

Bruce’s pain was surely exacerbated by the fact that Unai Emery’s supposedly vulnerable and hardly full-strength backline managed that real north Londoner’s collector’s item, a rare clean sheet on the road, on a day when a starting frontline missing both the £72m Pépé and Alexandre Lacazette created very little of note. At least the sight of the watching Andy Carroll keeping his ponytail dry with a baseball cap emblazoned with the word ‘Icon’ hinted at the prospect of potentially better days ahead but unfortunately for Newcastle, their newly returned, local attacking hero is injured – yet again. Admittedly there were some tantalising Miguel Almirón cameos, redolent with glittering promise but the undeniable absence of real ruthlessness in front of goal appeared suggestive of a long, hard slog ahead.

In mitigation Bruce’s players arguably had the better of things until injury concerns necessitated the withdrawal of first Shelvey and then Sean Longstaff from central midfield and they, fatally, lost shape. That reshuffle also cut the supply lines to Joelinton, Bruce’s marquee £40m Brazilian attacking signing from Hoffenheim, whose debut proved as quiet as a young Arsenal XI’s opening half.

If Emery’s side felt unsettled by the security issues which dictated that Mesut Özil and Sead Kolasinac did not board the flight to the north east, their hosts seemed to derive a measure of reassurance from the reasonably secure looking 3-5-2 framework within which Bruce had initially configured them.

That structure proved sufficiently robust to keep the score goalless at half-time on a day when Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s owner, will have been fairly satisfied to note that a proposed boycott of the game on the part of supporters variously dismayed by Rafael Benítez’s departure, his stewardship of the club and Bruce’s appointment fell more than a little flat.

Almost 48,000 still filed into the 52,000-capacity stadium while a pre kick-off protest march from Ashley’s Sports Direct in the nearby city centre to the ground attracted only around 300 dissenting fans.

Newcastle fans
Around 300 Newcastle fans protested against their club’s owner, Mike Ashley, before the match against Arsenal. Photograph: Greig Cowie/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

They missed the sight of Bernd Leno making a smart one-handed save to prevent Joelinton scoring and the important Isaac Hayden interception which possibly denied Henrikh Mkhitaryan a goal.

Bruce will have been mighty relieved to see Mkhitaryan curl an inviting opening wastefully off target but gratified by both his team’s initial strength down the left and his new public’s early generosity of spirit towards him.

Significantly Benítez’s successor was the recipient of warm applause as he, rather niftily, subdued a dropping stray ball with a heel as it flew into the technical area. It would ultimately prove a rare highlight but Mkhitaryan’s lack of similar assurance on a day when the often wayward Armenian provoked frequent frustration as he almost palpably struggled to settle into any sort of passing groove seemed to be playing into Bruce’s hands. Tellingly Emery looked disgruntled with far more than the raindrops beating down on the tightly pulled hood of his Arsenal anorak.

The moment had arrived for Aubameyang to issue a reminder that his presence, alone, is often sufficient to undo teams by beginning his pursuit of another golden boot in the most convincing fashion.

His 33rd goal in 50 Premier League appearances began with Dummett’s slapdash pass selling Willems horribly short and enabling Ainsley Maitland-Niles to seize possession and advance down the right before picking Aubameyang out with a luscious pass which removed Jamaal Lascelles from the defensive equation.

What followed from Aubameyang was an amalgam of adhesive control, technical excellence and exquisite incision all in the space of two touches. With his first the Gabon striker tamed the dropping delivery and with the second he dinked a cushioned half-volley over Martin Dubravka, his boot connecting at precisely the right moment as the ball bounced back up off the turf. Arsenal’s season has lift-off but Bruce is contemplating ignition problems.


Louise Taylor at St James’ Park

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