The Arteta Invincibles are no more. Arsenal’s unbeaten start to the Premier League campaign came to an abrupt end in the Newcastle rain. Mikel Arteta will not emulate Arsene Wenger this season – admittedly few thought he ever would – but he can rue a missed opportunity to leapfrog Tottenham and to establish a gaping lead over Newcastle in the quest for a top-four finish.
It has become a wretched week for Arsenal, with a Carabao Cup exit at West Ham followed by a dent in their title challenge, and a wonderful one for Newcastle. After a weakened team won at Old Trafford, they added to the evidence that they are becoming a formidable force on home soil with a display of forceful commitment. Anthony Gordon has come to epitomise them: brimming with verve, no respecter of reputations, he delivered the winner.
Boyhood Evertonians can prove a problem to undefeated Arsenal sides, as a teenage Wayne Rooney showed Wenger two decades ago; more pertinently for Newcastle, Gordon had the irrepressibility to deliver a decider when United, without the injured Alexander Isak and the substituted Callum Wilson, did not have a specialist centre-forward on the pitch.
Newcastle have a resourcefulness that has enabled them to cope with the loss of players. Meanwhile, Arsenal missed the sidelined pair of Gabriel Jesus and Martin Odegaard more as they mustered a lone shot on target while, minus Isak and Sandro Tonali, Newcastle found a way to win. Each side should have been depleted further. It may be an exaggeration to brand this the battle of St James’ Park, but it was a fractious affair that probably ought to have featured a pair of red cards.
Like much of the preceding action, the goal brought a focus on the overworked officials. A shot was prodded home by Gordon but Newcastle endured the curiosity of a triple VAR check – to determine if the ball went out of play before Joe Willock crossed, if Joelinton had fouled Gabriel Magalhaes as he won a header and if Gordon was offside – before it was awarded. That it came a couple of minutes after Willock came on for Wilson, who cannot complete 90 minutes, and after Gordon was repurposed as a striker suggested Eddie Howe has something of a Midas touch.
If he kept his head, others threatened to lose theirs, referee Stuart Attwell included. Kai Havertz should have been dismissed for a wild, reckless lunge at Sean Longstaff. Instead, he only collected a caution and, after the subsequent melee, Gordon, Fabian Schar and Longstaff all received the same punishment, leading to the impression Attwell was panicking. It may be unfair to suggest that getting three Newcastle players booked is the most Havertz has done in an Arsenal shirt but each lasted the full game.
So, more surprisingly, did Bruno Guimaraes, who caught Jorginho with his forearm, seemingly deliberately; he, too, should have gone. Half-time had soothing properties, stripping the game of some of its needle and, once the controversy dies down, Newcastle may be grateful for one of Attwell’s errors: had Guimaraes been dismissed then a midfield already deprived of Tonali would have lost him for three games. As it was, he was eventually booked in the 88th minute, incurring a one-match ban instead.
Arsenal’s outstanding performer came in their own midfield. Their impetus came from the driving runs of Declan Rice; his ball-carrying ability has added another dimension. Increasingly, it feels as though Arteta’s strategy is to deploy Rice as a No 8 against the better teams and, once again, he looked an ideal recruit for such occasions. Rice threatened to score with an audacious header from 14 yards.
Yet his teammates possessed too little threat. Gabriel Martinelli had the lone shot on target, just before half-time, but directed it at Nick Pope. Eddie Nketiah reached the milestone of 100 Premier League appearances but the more salient statistic may be that he still does not have a top-flight goal north of London since 2019. In his defence, he lacked service. It scarcely helped that Havertz, who has a PhD in flattering to deceive, flattered to deceive.
In a game of high intensity that was hugely competitive, Newcastle were scarcely more creative, belying their status as the team who, until Manchester City hit Bournemouth for six, were the division’s top scorers. But they kept running, their efforts summed up when Joelinton sank to his knees, punching the air, after halting Rice deep into injury time.
And, ultimately, Arsenal failed a test. They were too meek and callow when losing on Tyneside two seasons ago, had a redemptive win on Tyneside in May and now relapsed. There is a sense that St James’ Park tests a team’s mettle. Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool showed their resolve to prevail here. Paris Saint-Germain capitulated here. Arsenal were not as weak but they were overcome. And now they leave the mantle of the Premier League’s unbeaten side with Tottenham, hardly the team they want to anoint as the new North London Invincibles.