Baby steps but perhaps, in one sense, a significant stride. Arsenal’s return to the top half is hardly a cause for unbridled joy but the manner in which they sailed home dangled the promise of better times. Their struggles over the autumn went hand in hand with a damaging drought on the part of their captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but that seemed a distant memory by the time he had scored his second goal of a win with such ultimate ease it felt like something of a novelty.
It was the first that really blew away the cobwebs. Aubameyang had seen the ball in more threatening areas during the first half than in some entire games this season, even if end product was lacking and he had shot glaringly against the post from Arsenal’s best chance. Newcastle had kept them at bay but were broken five minutes after the interval when, characteristically, a rare attempt to sustain some pressure of their own broke down and Arsenal took their invitation to cut loose.
Thomas Partey, imperious throughout his return to the starting lineup after injury, had already sent Aubameyang away down the left with one quick, raking pass. On that occasion, early in the night, the striker had eventually run into traffic. This time he had a clear run at Emil Krafth, a scenario Arsenal had evidently sought to create at the outset, and saw his options increase as the defender backed off. Rather than cut inside he chose to shift the ball on to his left foot, uncorking a rasping drive that offered Karl Darlow little hope and jogged more than a few memories.
It felt like a trademark Aubameyang goal, combining high speed with elite execution, and he had not contrived one of such quality since the season’s opening day. A while after his 15th minute miss, which saw him jab against the far upright after Darlow’s save from Bukayo Saka had given him an open goal, Aubameyang had jumped into Krafth in a vain attempt to win a penalty and a now-familiar frustration appeared at risk of cutting through. This time, he cast it to one side.
“That’s what he’s done throughout his career,” Mikel Arteta said. “Mentally you have to be really strong to do that. He’s come out of a difficult period. We’ve missed his goals a lot and I’m really pleased for him.”
Aubameyang last scored twice in a match when deciding the FA Cup final. His second goal, Arsenal’s third, was tapped into an empty net after Cédric Soares had kept the ball in play by a millimetre and cut it back. After such a torrid run he now has four in his last six games; he cannot do it all on his own but the evening’s other defining moment showed that he may no longer need to.
Saka and Emile Smith Rowe are the academy darlings who, more than anyone else, have breathed life into Arsenal’s winter and they combined thrillingly on the hour to double the lead. Smith Rowe glides and probes but does so with rare energy and speed; this time he made ground of his own in that left-wing area before teeing up Saka for a low first-time finish. Plenty of time has been spent fretting about the dull form of Nicolas Pépé and Willian, but the two youngsters are beginning to consistently lift Arsenal above the mean to a degree of which their more experienced colleagues seem incapable.
“Overall the team looked confident, solid, compact and very clear about what we had to do in defence and attack,” Arteta said. “I’m very pleased with the clean sheet, the goals, the run and the momentum we are on.”
Arsenal have now kept five straight clean sheets in all competitions for the first time since 2009. It must be noted that they will rarely face less of a threat to their goal. Steve Bruce made eight changes on the back of Newcastle’s derelict defeat to Sheffield United, promising “the gloves are off now” and setting up with a far more attacking system than the one that had almost sneaked an FA Cup win here nine days previously. For all his good intentions, perhaps a more dogged outlook would have yielded a similarly tight game against hosts who took time to get going. Newcastle were incoherent in attack and hardly looked resilient further back; caught betwixt and between, what followed was inevitable.
“We’ve been caught twice on the counterattack and it’s about getting that balance,” Bruce said, while scotching any idea that he cannot arrest an alarming slump in form. “I’ve been in it a long time and managed to do it before.”
The pressure Arteta was under a month ago appears, by contrast, to have lifted. Smiles are becoming more widespread, a case in point being his expression when he explained Aubameyang was substituted at 3-0 because of “a stomach issue”. This performance should not prove too hard to digest.