Three quick thoughts from Newcastle’s 2-1 Premier League win over Arsenal at St James’ Park on Sunday.
1. Newcastle ensure survival as Arsenal away woes continue
Arsenal’s woeful away form shows no sign of improving as Newcastle all but ensured Premier League survival with a spirited comeback at St. James’ Park.
Matt Ritchie’s second-half winner means the Gunners have now lost five straight league away games for the first time in the Premier League era, and are the only team in English football without a single point on the road since the start of 2018. It was also their first league defeat at Newcastle in 13 years. The only consolation for Arsene Wenger’s side is that all those previous losses meant this one doesn’t really count for much, as their top-four hopes were extinguished long ago.
This one came despite a perfect start for the Gunners as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang set up Alexandre Lacazette for the opening goal after 14 minutes. But the Gunners’ all-too-familiar defensive struggles soon cost them again, as Ayoze Perez beat Shkodran Mustafi to a cross from DeAndre Yedlin and hammered his effort past Petr Cech.
That equaliser seemed harsh on the Gunners, who had looked in control of the game, but it was a far more even struggle after that and Newcastle’s winner did not feel undeserved. Again it was weak defending from Mustafi that led to the goal as the German centre-back’s poor headed clearance created the chance for Newcastle. Perez took advantage by setting up a wide-open Ritchie in the box, who finished calmly past Cech.
With Arsenal clearly rocked, Newcastle nearly had a third minutes later, but Kenedy’s chip hit the crossbar.
The win gives Rafa Benitez’s side 41 points, and if they were not already safe from relegation, then surely they are now.
For the Gunners, it means they are now just three points ahead of Burnely, and may need to focus more on protecting sixth place than trying to overtake Chelsea in fifth.
In the Gunners’ defence, it was once again a makeshift side as Wenger rotated heavily again after returning to London early Friday morning from their Europa League quarterfinal at CSKA Moscow. The likes of Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny all left at home, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan is still out injured.
But Wenger added some spark to an otherwise pedestrian lineup by pairing Lacazette and Aubameyang together from the start for the first time, and giving 18-year-old midfielder Joe Willock his league debut. But while the two strikes offered some hope for the future, Arsenal only offered another reminder of why this league campaign has been so disappointing.
2. Aubameyang, Lacazette show promise together
If there was one positive for Arsenal in this game, it was that any doubts about whether Aubameyang and Lacazette can play together vanished very quickly.
It was clear early on that putting Aubameyang out wide adds an element of pace to Arsenal’s attack that has often been missing from a side that lacks natural wingers. It also meant Newcastle’s back four had two danger men to worry about, with either able to run in behind at any time. Those two factors combined to create the first goal as Mustafi launched a good ball over the top for Aubameayng to run onto, drawing two defenders in the process. That left space for Lacazette to run into by the far post and Aubameyang sent over a perfect cross that the France striker hammered home with a difficult finish.
Lacazette seemed intent on returning the favour shortly before half-time after he and Mohamed Elneny combined to win possession in a dangerous area. But a pass that looked intended for the streaking Aubameyang ended up with Willock instead, and the teenager badly botched his attempt at a finish.
With Aubameyang cup tied, Wenger only has the largely meaningless league games to work on the partnership between this forward duo, who cost Arsenal in excess of £100 million in the past two transfer windows. It remains to be seen what they can do when playing with Ozil and Mkhitaryan, but it’s clear that any hope for next season relies on that quartet.
3. Shelvey strengthens case for World Cup spot
Whether Jonjo Shelvey should be included in England’s World Cup squad is a question that will continue to divide the neutrals. But he certainly strengthened his case in this game. Shelvey’s blend of physical strength and pinpoint passing is unique among English midfielders, and both attributes were on full display against the Gunners.
His balls over the top were a constant headache for Arsenal’s centre-backs, including the perfect delivery that helped set up Newcastle’s equaliser. And his ball-winning skills were crucial in both breaking up Arsenal’s attacks and launching quick counters for the home side.
Shelvey, of course, remains his own worst enemy in some ways with a hot-headed temper that can lead to reckless tackles and needless sendings off. It’s understandable if Gareth Southgate views him as too much of a gamble to include on the plane to Russia. But he must also wonder what the likes of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy could do when at the end of those Shelvey passes.
In the end, it may come down to a choice between Shelvey and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere for Southgate. But judging by Wilshere’s lacklustre display in Moscow on Thursday and Shelvey’s energetic performance against the Gunners, there’s no question which player is in better form.
Mattias is ESPN FC’s Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.