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It may have only taken a disastrous four days to undo much of a season’s good work. Arsenal could have sealed a place in next year’s Champions League on Thursday. Two games, two defeats and a six-point swing to Tottenham later and the Europa League beckons instead. Their longest journey this campaign proved among the depressing, a deserved defeat to Newcastle leaving Arsenal reliant on a hapless Norwich team for a favour on Sunday if they are to stand any chance of leapfrogging their neighbours.
Their exile from the European elite seems set to extend into a sixth season. They have grasped fifth place from the jaws of fourth. Instead of a breakthrough campaign, it looks like being a qualified success that, right now, can feel like a failure.
An opportunity has been squandered amid five losses in nine games, the concession of five goals in two matches and two dreadful displays. A self-destructive streak was symbolised by a scorer in their latest setback. Arsenal can beat Arsenal and, much as Newcastle merited victory and the outstanding Bruno Guimaraes warranted his clinching strike, the final touch for their opener came from a visiting player. Ben White was luckless, but too often Arsenal have been architects of their own downfall. They now sit two points behind Spurs, with added reasons to rue Thursday’s North London derby.
Arsenal had left White unused at Tottenham, even finishing with Granit Xhaka at centre-back instead, to save him for St James’ Park. And if that decision seemed vindicated when he showed his solidity when Arsenal were under pressure in the first half and he cleared almost off his own line from both Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson, his comeback had unintended consequences. He beat Aaron Ramsdale, Arsenal’s £50m centre-back scoring for Newcastle.
Joelinton surged clear on the left, with Mohamed Elneny in distant pursuit, to cross. Wilson tried to apply the finishing touch. White did instead. He came close to a second own goal later, but he did not feel the most culpable defender. Cedric Soares was nowhere to be seen when Joelinton broke clear on Newcastle’s left. Injuries have been a constant companion for Arsenal of late and the Portuguese had been dropped after a shoddy display on Thursday. But when Takehiro Tomiyasu limped off, Cedric was summoned and, once again, Arsenal seemed to lack strength in depth.
They had won 18 of their previous 19 games against Newcastle but it was soon apparent that history was no help. Arsenal were penned back, unable to get into the final third and looking like underdogs as Eddie Howe’s side were dominant. Newcastle had two-thirds of possession in a dominant first-half display. Ramsdale made a jittery start, almost gifting Miguel Almiron a goal and at fault when White needed to clear a Wilson effort off the line, but he excelled to parry a shot from Allan Saint-Maximum, following a barnstorming solo run.
Yet more of the opportunities came after the break, Arsenal showing a belated recognition of their need to win as the game opened up. They ended up looking ragged and ramshackle, with the outnumbered White the only member of the starting back four left on the pitch as first Nuno Tavares and then Gabriel Magalhaes were sacrificed to bring on attackers.
The inevitable consequence was a second Newcastle goal, Ramsdale parrying the ball away from Wilson only for Guimaraes to slot the ball into the empty net. He was the game’s classiest performer, stroking the ball around in midfield. A player Arsenal had shown interest in gave them grounds to regret not buying him.
Newcastle should have sealed victory earlier. Wilson, who exuded menace on his first start of 2022, skied a shot and then came agonisingly close with an audacious effort from 35 yards. The substitutes Ryan Fraser and Jacob Murphy combined when isolated against White, with Ramsdale needed to deny the Englishman.
Meanwhile, Arsenal scarcely mounted an attack worthy of the name. Mikel Arteta brought Emile Smith Rowe back into the team but he was anonymous and removed with 40 minutes remaining. Martin Odegaard was scarcely any better and Eddie Nketiah was starved of service. Only Bukayo Saka offered the hint he could make anything happen but a theme of Arsenal’s season has been an inability to take points after going behind. Newcastle’s has been a campaign of two halves: awful at the start, terrific at the end. This was an eleventh win in 16 games and a biggest scalp to date for Howe. Newcastle can enter next season with optimism. Arsenal may begin it with a fixture list packed with Thursday night matches, wondering what might have been.