Arsenal’s response to a bruising 4-0 loss against Liverpool last weekend began after the final whistle in the bowels of the Merseyside stadium according to Mikel Arteta.
“I really liked the reaction that we had already in the dressing room at Anfield after the game,” Arsenal’s coach revealed on the eve of the Gunners’ 2-0 triumph at home to Newcastle on Saturday afternoon. “How some players took leadership and described what happened in a really honest way, and looked forward… This is something that before it didn’t happen, and I am really pleased it is happening at the moment.”
However, while rousing Churchillian speeches are ready-made episode anchors for Arsenal’s upcoming edition of All or Nothing, they fall flat without the performance to back them up.
After more than half an hour of anaemic possession desperately devoid of penetration from the hosts, Arsenal were still waiting for that reaction to spark.
As so often has been the case for much of his impressive, but short Arsenal career, Bukayo Saka proved to be that catalyst. Drifting off his perch on the right wing in the final five minutes of the first half, Saka finally unbalanced the backline of Newcastle’s deep, compact 4-4-2.
Receiving a pass on the left hand side of the penalty area, Saka wriggled to the byline, picking out Emile Smith Rowe unmarked six yards from goal. Martin Dubravka produced a stunning stop to deny the newly minted England international but parried to the feet of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who somehow scraped the post from one stride out.
Arsenal may have climbed as high as fifth after opening their campaign with a trio of defeats, but they have struggled to carve out chances all season. Newcastle remain rooted to the foot of the table but, even after Saturday’s defeat, have scored as many league goals as their considerably loftier hosts – 15 in 13 games.
However, even that mediocre figure is inflated sizeably by Arsenal’s reliance upon set pieces. Going into the weekend’s fixtures, only relegation-scrapping Norwich City had scored fewer goals from open play than the Gunners’ seven.
Saka almost broke the deadlock against Newcastle from a dead ball situation shortly after the interval, initially playing it short before arcing a tantalising low pass across the box which Takehiro Tomiyasu couldn’t reach on the stretch.
Arteta’s message during the break was simple: “Don’t let them frustrate you,” as Saka recounted post-game to BT Sport. Arsenal’s number seven ensured Newcastle’s reinforced rear-guard didn’t hold out much longer.
Again floating onto the opposite flank to overtly overload that side, Saka combined once again with Smith Rowe, rolling the ball to his international teammate before skipping into the area as the near-impossible to track ‘third-man run’. Nuno Tavares opted against his favoured blaze wide to pick out Saka for a finish as crisp as the frosty November air.
Newcastle were forced to break out of their shell in search of a long awaited first win of the season, offering ever-widening gaps for Arsenal to exploit. Saka wasn’t on the pitch long enough to run riot himself, hobbling off half-way through the second half, but his replacement – Gabriel Martinelli – didn’t take long to adapt to the speed of the contest.
93 seconds after trotting onto the pitch, Arsenal’s oft-overlooked Brazilian darted infield, off the ball, away from Matt Ritchie while Ben White punched a pass into Tomiyasu. The Japan international span a delicate clip into the box which Martinelli plucked out of the air and over the helpless Dubravka to double Arsenal’s lead.
By the game’s conclusion, Arsenal had rattled off 24 shots to Newcastle’s nine, creating chances worthy of 2.78 xG from open play alone (per FotMob) – more than triple the tally they had been averaging ahead of Saturday’s return to winning ways.
A routine 2-0 victory against the worst side in the division may not heal all the wounds Liverpool’s ravaging – and the beatings Manchester City and Chelsea dished out at the start of the season – opened up.
But the Gunners can take confidence from continuing their commanding form against the division’s strugglers; across all competitions this season, Arsenal have a 100% record against the half-dozen sides that started the weekend in the Premier League‘s bottom six (Watford, Aston Villa, Leeds, Burnley, Norwich and now Newcastle).
However, there are plenty of teams that operate between the top three and bottom six (ten, excluding the Gunners themselves, to be precise) that Arsenal cannot afford to implode against. Their next test of this kind comes as quickly as Thursday, when they travel to Old Trafford for a meeting with Manchester United that will serve as a more accurate measure of Arsenal’s status this season.