For 90-odd minutes on Tyneside something strange happened: it was possible to believe that Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal really are “the new Invincibles” after all.
No matter that the visitors kicked off in 11th position, a regressive Newcastle made Arteta’s hitherto struggling class of 2020-21 look worthy heirs of Arsène Wenger’s all-conquering team from nearly two decades ago.
Scouts from Villarreal doing their homework before Thursday’s Europa League semi-final second leg may have wondered if they were really watching the team that were somewhat fortunate to only lose 2-1 in Spain last week.
Given the potential of Thursday’s return at the Emirates to rescue the most disappointing of seasons, Arsenal’s manager had clearly prioritised that rematch, making eight changes as he fielded a set of supposed second-stringers.
If a slightly unfamiliar team sheet featuring Granit Xhaka once again operating as an ersatz left-back offered Newcastle hope, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was restored to attack following a bout of malaria.
Albeit inadvertently, the Gabon international helped place a sizeable dent in Steve Bruce’s gameplan. Only six minutes had passed when Héctor Bellerín’s pace transported him beyond Matt Ritchie down the visiting right. Bellerín crossed for Aubameyang only for the centre-forward to end up swiping a boot at thin air before the ball deflected to Mohamed Elneny just inside the area.
It was bouncing awkwardly and fairly high but Elneny possessed the technique to send a technically challenging half-volley searing beyond Martin Dubravka’s grasp. It was the Egyptian midfielder’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 pass lofted, majestically, out of central defence.
Arteta’s side proceeded to dominate first-half possession, leaving Newcastle looking half a yard off the pace and at times strangely disengaged. The indomitable spirit that had hauled Bruce’s players out of a tailspin as eight points were collected from the last 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 were littered all over the pitch, with only Allan Saint-Maximin raising the tone.
When the French forward slalomed past two defenders, his ensuing shot deflected off Xhaka, forcing Mat Ryan to tip the ball acrobatically over the crossbar but, that apart, Arteta’s second-choice goalkeeper had little to do.
With Elneny and Dani Ceballos eclipsing Jonjo Shelvey and Sean Longstaff and controlling central midfield, Dubravka was the keeper under pressure.
The Slovakia international did well to repel Xhaka’s swerving 20-yarder and looked relieved to see Aubameyang screw a decent chance wide, while Miguel Almirón had to clear Elneny’s goalbound header off the line.
Xhaka had collected a booking for a foul on Saint-Maximin after only 20 minutes but Newcastle seemed incapable of highlighting the clear defensive vulnerabilities of a stand-in left-back who needed to watch his step.
As news of the Manchester United fans’ protests at Old Trafford filtered through to Tyneside Bruce must have been mighty relieved no home supporters were permitted inside St James’ Park. Had they been present throughout this season it seems inconceivable that he would still be in post. By the interval every visiting player bar Ryan and Willian had directed a shot on the Newcastle goal.
David Luiz’s potential for inflicting further damage was removed early in the second half when the defender, newly recovered from a knee injury, hobbled off with hamstring trouble.
Xhaka subsequently escaped a possible second yellow card after bodychecking Longstaff and his side soon doubled their advantage thanks to Gabriel Martinelli’s stellar cross and Aubameyang’s spectacular scoring volley.
As Fulham and West Brom presumably sensed a glimmer of renewed hope in their race to avoid relegation, Bruce’s misery was compounded when the substitute Fabian Schär was shown a straight red card on 90 minutes for a horribly late challenge on Martinelli.