Arsenal and Newcastle United could only manage a goalless draw, and while Newcastle will be happy to leave London with a point, Arsenal may be disappointed.
Should you be looking for confirmation that this Premier League season has caught people a little off-guard, the reaction to Arsenal still being top of the table into the new year tells you all you need to know. The team that has been top of the Premier League since August 20, who went into their game against Newcastle United having dropped just five Premier League points all season, seem to have brought about a feeling of denial in a lot of people.
The realisation that Arsenal are a good team has taken five months to slowly percolate through to the collective consciousness.
Newcastle will emerge from this tetchy, scrappy goalless draw the happier of the two teams. If they arrived at The Emirates Stadium with a plan to prioritise coming away with an unbeaten league record which stretches back to August 31, they accomplished that mission.
Arsenal may rue not converting a dominant second-half performance into more chances and a handball shout in the last seconds of stoppage-time which came to nothing, adding to an atmosphere that was rapidly souring as a result of some timely Newcastle time-wasting throughout the previous five minutes.
By half-time, the most telling statistic was that there’d been more than twice as many yellow cards as there had been shots on target. The best chance of the half came right at its death, and pointedly didn’t involve one. Instead, Joelinton headed wide for Newcastle when he really should have scored, but this would have been a false representation of a first half which was appropriately represented at the interval by a goalless scoreline.
None of this is to say that it was bad football. Joelinton’s miss was a little careless and the first half would be better described as ‘scrappy’ than anything else, but the tempo was high and the passing was crisp. These were, ultimately, two teams cancelling each other out. The most notable statistic of the half was those five yellow cards, but it was somewhat surprising to hear Gary Neville repeating the strange viewpoint that ‘the referee has created a problem for himself’ by giving out a couple of them quite early on.
Gary should really have explained further how this is supposed to work. Are red card offences downgraded to yellows for the first 15 minutes? Can you literally get away with anything beyond a finger-wagging telling-off in the opening stages of the game? Because far be it from me to question the wisdom of someone who’s been working in the professional game for decades, but shouldn’t the fault here be with players who get themselves booked early rather than referees for booking them? Obviously, the matter of whether each yellow card constitutes an offence worthy of a formal caution is a different question.
The second half followed the same pattern, only with Arsenal dominating possession. But again, there seemed no way through. Time and again Arsenal would work their way to the byline, or somewhere else which looked like it could turn into a promising position. Each time, these half-chances were snuffed out as quickly as they arrived, a black and white wall of a defence. By the time 75 minutes had been played, there had been three shots on target. This was still less than half the number of yellow cards handed out, which had increased by this point to seven.
On a night when chances were few and far between, those that did present themselves needed to be taken. With four minutes to play, Arsenal’s fell to Eddie Nketiah. Granit Xhaka had been labouring all evening to get the ball through to precisely this position but Nketiah, on the left-hand side of the penalty area, had his shot blocked by the leg of the Newcastle goalkeeper Nick Pope. It felt a little as though Arsenal had been building up to this opportunity all evening. Even though there were five minutes of stoppage-time on top of those last four minutes, they didn’t create anything as clear-cut again.
Mikel Arteta was already blowing a gasket over Newcastle slowing everything down to a crawl over those extra minutes when the handball shout came. Was it a penalty or not? Well… it sat right on the line. Granit Xhaka’s cross definitely hit Jacob Murphy’s arm, but said arm didn’t really seem to be in an ‘unnatural’ position and the question of where else he was supposed to put it seems like a fair one to ask. It came close enough to the final whistle for the frustration and unhappiness to still be raining down from the stands as the players left the pitch.
Newcastle have the best defensive record in the Premier League, having conceded just 11 goals in their 18 games. That they should have come away from this game with another clean sheet shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. But for all that Arsenal may fume over the late penalty call, the time-wasting, and all the other issues that are already blowing up social media, there are positives and negatives that they can take from the game which having nothing to do with refereeing conspiracies.
On the upside, they limited Newcastle to one shot on target over the entire 90 minutes. As we’ve already seen this season on plenty of occasions, this Arsenal team has a spine completely unlike that of any Arsenal team over the last decade and a half or so. They were not in any danger of losing this game, and to be able to say that at the end of a match against the team in third place in Premier League is an achievement in itself.
On the downside, well, they really needed Gabriel Jesus for this match, and the fact that Arteta didn’t make any substitutions until the 76th minute may say something about the relative lack of depth in his squad. And even this has a silver lining; if you do need a little extra depth to your squad, there are far worse times in the year to realise as much than the very start of January. The rumour mill has alighted upon Dusan Vlahovic again. Would Arsenal be able to see off rival bids to secure the services of a player that they could have done with against Newcastle?
Both Arsenal and Newcastle United are well ahead of schedule. Newcastle remain serious challengers for a Champions League place and Arsenal remain clear at the top, still the team to beat at the top of the Premier League. And the fact that it has taken so long for either to be seriously considered challengers for these ambitions by some says something about how calcified the Premier League has felt in recent years.
These challenges are both on and they’re both real. They have been since the start of the season.
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