For 90 minutes on Tyneside on Sunday something peculiar happened: it was possible to believe Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal really are “the new Invincibles” after all. No matter that the visitors kicked off in 11th position – a regressive, deep-sitting Newcastle made Arteta’s hitherto struggling class of 2020-21 look worthy heirs to Arsène Wenger’s all-conquering team from nearly two decades ago.
Scouts from Villarreal doing their homework before this week’s Europa League semi-final second leg may have struggled to comprehend the gap between the team that seemed lucky to lose only 2-1 in Spain last Thursday and Steve Bruce’s tormentors.
Given the potential of Thursday’s return at the Emirates to rescue this most disappointing of seasons, Arteta had clearly prioritised that rematch, making eight changes and fielding a set of supposed second-stringers.
Granit Xhaka once again operated as an ersatz left-back and Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang was restored to the attack following a bout of malaria.
Albeit inadvertently, the Gabon striker swiftly helped put a sizeable dent in Bruce’s gameplan. Six minutes had passed when Héctor Bellerín’s pace transported him beyond Matt Ritchie down the right and he crossed in Aubameyang’s direction, only for the centre-forward to end up swiping a boot at thin air.
The ball deflected to Mohamed Elneny just inside the area. It was bouncing capriciously and awkwardly high but the Egyptian midfielder sent a searing half volley past Martin Dubravka. It was Elneny’s first Premier League goal for Arsenal and he was swift to salute David Luiz for his role in initially picking Bellerín out courtesy of a visionary lofted pass from central defence.
“Elneny’s a fantastic player, very popular in the dressing room,” enthused Arteta, who has not always regarded the midfielder as a first choice. “It was a very strong performance, we dominated the game.”
His side, who rose to ninth with this victory, proceeded to dominate possession, leaving Newcastle looking half a yard off the pace and second to the majority of second balls. The indomitable spirit that hauled Bruce’s players out of a tailspin with eight points from the previous four matches had vanished.
In its place, alarming reminders of the seemingly relegation-bound team which had won only two of its previous 20 games, with only Allan Saint-Maximin sporadically raising the tone. Elneny and Dani Ceballos eclipsed Jonjo Shelvey and Sean Longstaff in central midfield, and Dubravka remained under intense pressure.
Xhaka had been booked for fouling Saint-Maximin after only 20 minutes but, as he, Aubameyang and Elneny all tested the Slovakia goalkeeper’s reflexes, Newcastle seemed incapable of highlighting the defensive vulnerabilities of a stand-in left-back who needed to watch his step.
On an afternoon which will be remembered for the Manchester United fans’ protests at Old Trafford, Bruce must have been mightily relieved no home supporters were permitted inside St James’ Park. Had they been present throughout this season it seems inconceivable he could have remained in his post until now.
By the interval every Arsenal player bar Willian and Mathew Ryan had directed at least one shot on goal. However David Luiz’s potential to inflict further damage was removed early in the second half when the defender, starting his first game since knee surgery in March, hobbled off nursing a hamstring injury.
Xhaka escaped a possible second yellow card after cynically body-checking Longstaff and his side soon doubled their advantage thanks a spectacular Aubameyang volley from Gabriel Martinelli’s stellar cross.
“We didn’t think Aubameyang would be fit to play today so it was great to have him on the pitch,” said Arteta. “The only downside is David Luiz’s hamstring injury.”
As Fulham and West Brom presumably sensed a faint glimmer of new hope in their efforts to avoid relegation, Newcastle’s misery was compounded when the substitute Fabian Schär was contentiously shown a straight red card for a challenge on Martinelli in the 90th minute.
Bruce felt it worthy of “a yellow at best” but made no excuses for his team’s distinctly disengaged performance. “We’re disappointed,” he said. “We didn’t perform well enough, we dropped too deep and let Arsenal dictate. But we’ve got four games left, and we’ve still got a lot to play for. We don’t think we’re safe.”