It was a performance of intensity and cool authority that will have caused considerable anxiety to Mauricio Pochettino, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Maurizio Sarri. With just seven matches of the season remaining Arsenal sit third in the Premier League table, two points clear of Tottenham and Manchester United, this confident 2-0 victory putting Unai Emery’s team firmly in control of their Champions League destiny.
At just the moment Spurs are beginning to falter, Arsenal are building up an exceptionally encouraging head of steam. This was their tenth consecutive home victory — the first time they have managed that feat since the 1997/98 season — while they are now undefeated since the beginning of February, when they rolled over at Manchester City.
But what a different Arsenal team this is.
This industrious victory may not rival their finest performances of the season, but the crucial thing is that, when the pressure was on, Arsenal did not wilt. There was little evidence of the flakiness that has often dogged them in the past. Instead they were in complete control throughout: throttling Newcastle’s deep-lying defence until they had prised themselves an opener, then managing the game until Alexandre Lacazette’s late finish settled any lingering nerves.
He may not have admitted as much but Emery is well aware Arsenal are now in the driving seat. “When we lost our first two games I was positive, but it was difficult,” he said. “Now it is easier. Our opposition will demand a lot from us but we are improving. The challenge now is playing away, as we have five away matches left. The challenge is to be as consistent away as we are at home.”
He has tuned the Emirates into a fortress again. It was the most mature of victories — precisely the quality needed at this twitchy stage of the season — with captain Aaron Ramsey in particular shining. He ran the show in the first-half, scoring the game’s opening goal having seen an earlier effort unfairly ruled out by referee Anthony Taylor, all the while deputising for the injured Granit Xhaka and suspended Lucas Torreira in the middle of the park. That he went off injured in the second-half was the only major note of concern for Emery.
Newcastle, who enjoyed less than thirty per cent possession, gave him precious little to worry about. They managed to hold off Arsenal for half an hour but their extreme conservatism succeeded only in inviting wave upon wave of Arsenal pressure, with Ramsey the man to first pick the lock.
His touch to control an elegant Mattéo Guendouzi pass forward was nothing short of exquisite: a deft first-time flick to send Lacazette scampering clear into the box. The Frenchman did all he could to twist and turn into a pocket of space, only to poke the ball into the legs of DeAndre Yedlin, it then falling kindly for Ramsey to stroke home off the inside of the post.
The touch to create the opportunity was sumptuous, the finish to convert it inch-perfect. What a shame that, come next season, he will be wearing black-and-white stripes instead of red.
The goal was especially well deserved as, only a few minutes before, Ramsey had seen a perfectly good finish ruled out in acrimonious circumstances. This time Sead Kolasinac was the creator, perceptively nodding Mesut Ozil’s corner across the face of goal for Ramsey to crash home at the far post. But Arsenal’s celebrations were to be cut short, Taylor penalising Sokratis for a seemingly innocuous tangle with Florian Lejeune. Replays suggested the decision was a soft one.
It was far from the only hair-raising moment at the back for Newcastle’s uncharacteristically porous defence. Ramsey was at it again shortly before the interval, releasing Ozil with a dead-eyed through ball, which was then quickly worked to a loitering Lacazette just inside Newcastle’s penalty area. His nimble turn and shot was too good for Martin Dubravka, the goalkeeper however saved by Matt Richie’s intuitive header off the line.
Given the impression he made on the game it was then a shame that Ramsey departed injured midway through the second-half. As the Emirates gurgled contently he disappeared straight down the tunnel: how Emery will hope he recovers for next week’s trip to Everton.
But, as Newcastle continued to toil, Arsenal were not particularly affected by his absence. And with time running out Lacazette made sure of the three points in speculative fashion, racing onto Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s selfless nod forward and lobbing a despairing Dubravka. “Tottenham Hotspur — we’re coming for you,” the home crowd gloated in response.
They have every right to feel confident. At the start of February, Arsenal languished ten points behind a title-challenging Tottenham. Now they sit two ahead. They will need to adapt the chant. Sunday’s trip to Goodison is perhaps their hardest remaining match, with Spurs still to visit Manchester City.
With an eminently winnable set of fixtures ahead of them, a place in next season’s Champions League is now Arsenal’s to lose.
Arsenal: Leno, Mustafi, Papastathopoulos, Monreal, Maitland-Niles, Ramsey, Guendouzi, Kolasinac, Ozil, Iwobi, Lacazette. Subs: Cech, Elneny, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang, Suarez, Jenkinson, Nketiah.
Newcastle: Dubravka, Yedlin, Lejeune, Lascelles, Dummett, Ritchie, Perez, Diame, Hayden, Almiron, Rondon. Subs: Ki, Shelvey, Muto, Kenedy, Fernandez, Manquillo, Darlow.
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Cheshire)