Newcastle facing top-four nerves now after Arsenal sh*thouse the sh*thouses
Newcastle didn’t really do much wrong in their 2-0 defeat against Arsenal – apart from the obvious and important ‘score the really good chances, yeah?’ – but it’s results that matter in May and that top-four spot looks far more precarious now.
It’s very easy to get drawn in by ‘results bias’ after games like that. Martin Odegaard smacks one through Sven Botman’s legs and into the bottom corner. Fabian Schar diverts one past Nick Pope and it’s “great game management from Arsenal” and “did Newcastle pick the wrong team?”.
But if Jacob Murphy scores instead of hitting the post after 70 seconds… If… If… If…
Apart from the very obvious point of not actually taking their chances, Newcastle didn’t really do a lot wrong here in a game where any result would have been fair enough based on different phases of the game. But it was also great game management from Arsenal, and Newcastle probably did pick the wrong team.
Newcastle were sensational in the first 10 minutes. In terms of a from-the-whistle blitz the general level really wasn’t that far below the Spurs nonsense the other week. But Arsenal just about got through it and, while always prone to defensive catastrophe themselves, are clearly made from far sterner stuff than whatever this current Spurs team is.
And the result means that the decision to start Callum Wilson and Alexander Isak in tandem for the first time has to go down as a failure even if it could all have looked very different.
That’s just undeniable, sadly. A quick look at the scoring record of both players in the last couple of months versus the chances that came their way today cannot be ignored. The fact both strikers played pretty well doesn’t change that; if anything it makes it worse. Makes it look more like an issue of structure rather than a more easily explained off day for one or both men.
However willing both players were, however astute and industrious their general play the cold facts are that Newcastle’s centre-back duo had more attempts and more attempts on target today than the centre-forward duo.
Wilson had no shots on or off target in 77 minutes having scored eight goals in his previous eight league appearances; Isak two shots off target having scored seven in his previous nine.
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Newcastle still created chances, but in open play they fell mainly to Jacob Murphy or Joe Willock, with the centre-backs prominent from set-pieces. Every one of those set-pieces also seemed to involved Dan Burn looking comically oversized, like the one giant 11-year-old every school football team has, and it remains a mystery why Newcastle don’t simply have him just score all headers from every set-piece. Especially with Kieran Trippier’s delivery. They’d probably win the league. Daft not to have tried it.
But I digress. There was certainly a sense of less rather than more about Newcastle’s attacking play with both their major goal threats starting the game. Again, our old friend result bias is at play here because if Murphy or Willock take their chances, or Aaron Ramsdale has an average instead of very good game, it all looks very different. But the numbers for Isak and Wilson definitely weren’t great; Eddie Howe’s first instinct that the two couldn’t play together from the start may well have been the right one, and this was always a curious game in which to alter a strategy that was working so wonderfully.
Certainly, there was enough looseness about Arsenal at the back to suggest Newcastle should have been able to enjoy themselves without the need for two out-and-out frontmen. And it also left them that tiny bit more vulnerable to the sort of counter-attack at which this Arsenal side are so adept and which led to the second goal.
Newcastle’s development in recent months from a decent team built on a pragmatic, safety-first foundation into something far more proactive and front foot has been a wonderful sight but this was a mis-step. Could have worked, but it didn’t.
And the outcome means that there was a distinct air of Arsenal out-shithousing the shithouses about it all. Especially in light of the way Newcastle scrapped to a point at the Emirates earlier in the season. The sight here of Newcastle fans whistling and hooting at Ramsdale and co’s ‘game management’ from about the third minute in was objectively hilarious. One thing you can’t deny is that Newcastle fans should by now know it when they see it, but every team does it; it’s just about which teams do it well. Newcastle do it very well. Today, Arsenal did it very well, enough so to draw some Howe complaints.
They were helped by circumstance, of course they were. We’d love to see how this game pans out if Murphy’s second-minute effort starts two inches to the right and goes in rather than out off the post. Strong suspicion there would be a lot less people currently admiring the size of Arsenal’s cojones. But that’s the game.
The VAR check for a Newcastle penalty was a turning point. It was rightly overturned but had a deflating effect on Newcastle and the crowd and gave Arsenal a good long break to recover themselves, something they’d been trying to do without much success in that helter-skelter opening.
The likelihood remains that this is nothing more than a minor setback in Newcastle’s march onwards and upwards, but it definitely makes the remaining weeks of the season a bit dicier. The quirks of the fixture list meant Liverpool played three times between Newcastle games and won the lot. This defeat means a nine-point swing in the blink of an eye without Howe’s team really doing an awful lot wrong.
But Arsenal will tell you that not doing an awful lot wrong counts for little if anyone gets even a hint of being able to gleefully laugh at you for bottling it. The Newcastle Brown memes will be ready to go if things go wrong in the face of the further inevitable shithousing at Big Sam’s Leeds next week.
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