Ten minutes of normal time remained when Mikel Arteta withdrew the outstanding Martin Ødegaard and the almost equally impressive Gabriel Martinelli. Arsenal’s manager had judged his team’s two-goal lead sufficiently secure to protect this magnificent match’s two principal catalysts, resting their legs for the challenges ahead.
Manchester City may be a point ahead at the top of the Premier League with a game in hand but Arteta’s players are not about to surrender their title pursuit just yet – and certainly not after coming through a significant test of character and courage on Tyneside with flying colours.
Newcastle pushed Arsenal all the way, doing enough to suggest they will grace next season’s Champions League. It spoke volumes that Aaron Ramsdale needed to excel in the visiting goal while Arsenal frequently resorted to the sort of streetwise time-wasting tactics Arteta has previously accused Eddie Howe of choreographing.
It was the only way Arsenal could resist the home side’s momentum, the sole hope they had of interrupting the flow which had threatened to overwhelm their collective talent.
Ultimately though, Ødegaard and Martinelli imposed that quality. And, as notorious “game managers” themselves in the very recent past, Newcastle were arguably hoist by their own petard.
Yet Howe’s players started at their high-intensity, hard-pressing best with Jacob Murphy’s second-minute shot cannoning off a post following his collection of Joe Willock’s cross.
Shortly afterwards they thought they should have been awarded a penalty when Bruno Guimarães’s shot struck Jakub Kiwior’s hand. Despite the referee, Chris Kavanagh, initially awarding that spot-kick he changed his mind after viewing a pitchside monitor.
Replays indicated it was the correct decision, the ball having struck Kiwior’s knee before rebounding on to the Poland defender’s hand. But the normally measured Howe was so incensed that his assistant Jason Tindall felt it necessary to extend a restraining arm and prevent him confronting Anthony Taylor, the fourth official.
Indeed Newcastle’s collective emotional equilibrium seemed disturbed to the point where they lost concentration at a crucial moment, allowing Arsenal to score with their first attack.
If there had seemed little danger when Jorginho’s delivery reached Ødegaard, everything changed as the Norway midfielder took a steadying touch before sending a 25-yard, left-foot shot whizzing low through a forest of ankles before bisecting the eye of a needle gap between Nick Pope and his left-hand post. As good a finish as it undeniably was, Pope turned rightly furious at his teammates’ uncharacteristically slapdash marking.
Ødegaard’s 15th goal of a highly productive season served to remind Arsenal why they remain potential champions and, from then on, they menaced Newcastle almost every time they advanced. Pope was required to save smartly from Ødegaard again, Bukayo Saka and Martinelli during the first half alone.
Not that the visitors could remotely relax until the closing minutes of a ferociously high-tempo, yet consistently high-calibre, contest. Ramsdale, competing with Pope for second place behind Jordan Pickford in the England pecking order, made a litany of important saves, denying Willock and Callum Wilson in the immediate aftermath of Ødegaard’s opener.
If Howe had reason to be worried by Arsenal’s ability to breach his team’s high defensive line, the manner in which Alexander Isak sporadically treated everyone to his wonderfully elegant, and elusive, gazelle on casters impression offered Newcastle’s manager cause for cautious optimism. It was tempered only by the Sweden striker’s lack of service.
The normally circumspect Howe has likened Isak to Thierry Henry and, deployed wide on the left here, there were fleeting moments when everyone could see why.
In general though, Isak and Wilson suffered due to Jorginho’s cramping of Guimarães’s usual style and Granit Xhaka’s ability to limit Joelinton’s customary influence by engaging him in abrasive, and distracting, running battles.
Ødegaard, meanwhile, displayed his class by slowing things whenever possible. In resisting the temptation to try anything too fancy, he frustrated Willock and company by retaining possession courtesy of a series of neat, simple, eminently sensible short passes.
Evidently failing to heed Ødegaard’s level-headed example, other players had begun crossing swords all over the pitch. Indeed things turned more than a little feisty and particularly so after Wilson and Xhaka squared up shortly before the interval.
Xhaka had been perceived to be feigning injury, prompting choruses of “same old Arsenal, always cheating” from the Gallowgate End. Perhaps catching the mood, Tindall, Ramsdale and Dan Burn became embroiled in angry exchanges in the tunnel at half-time. Arteta was presumably delighted Newcastle had become far too het up to deliver killer final passes.
Admittedly Isak began the second half by heading Murphy’s cross against a post. Not to be outdone Martinelli, who subjected Kieran Trippier to some awkward moments, responded by curling a right-foot shot against the bar after deceiving Fabian Schär.
The Switzerland defender struggled slightly at the back but was only denied an equaliser when Ramsdale performed acrobatic wonders to repel his goalbound header.
Tempers remained combustible. Joelinton felt Xhaka had made a meal of one of his challenges, going down far too easily, while Schär complained that Gabriel Jesus had overreacted in the face of his combative defensive attentions.
Given the role Martinelli’s left-wing advances had played in destabilising Newcastle it seemed somehow appropriate when Schär subsequently diverted his cross beyond Pope to rubber stamp the reignition of Arsenal’s title challenge.