The road has been heavily booby trapped, with hazards at almost every turn but, somehow, Newcastle have developed a knack of navigating a safe passage towards the sunlit uplands.
No matter that Sandro Tonali, their £55m summer signing from Milan, is banned for 10 months for gambling offences or that a raft of senior players including Sven Botman and Alexander Isak are injured, Eddie Howe’s team continue to impress on all fronts.
A controversial goal created by Joe Willock and scored by Anthony Gordon before surviving three VAR checks dented disappointing Arsenal’s title ambitions and suggested that a wonderfully resilient, currently sixth placed, Newcastle are here for the long haul.
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Granted it was gritty, and sometimes downright bad-tempered, but this was a statement victory capable of giving Mikel Arteta sleepless nights. Arsenal’s manager departed seemingly close to implosion and demanding “how the hell” such “an absolute disgrace” of a goal could be allowed to stand yet his complaints could not quite camouflage the reality that Arsenal were largely the architects of their first Premier League defeat of the season.
Throughout a spiky, scrappy game of red cards that might have been – Kai Havertz and Bruno Guimarães were arguably lucky to avoid dismissal – an Arsenal side increasingly missing their injured captain Martin Ødegaard enjoyed the bulk of possession but were prevented from doing much with it. Instead Newcastle’s off-the-ball discipline repeatedly forced their guests to rush into playing the uncharacteristically long and high passes in the final third. It dictated that, ultimately all Arsenal’s territorial superiority counted for nothing.
Even so, Howe’s players were a little flat until Havertz scythed through Sean Longstaff on the touchline adjacent to the home dugout. It was a rather high, borderline reckless, challenge but Havertz did appear to have been after the ball rather than the man and Stuart Attwell duly awarded a yellow card. That decision was endorsed by a subsequent VAR review but Longstaff, the otherwise excellent Fabian Schär and Gordon were so incensed that they, too, were booked.
If there were a new category of orange cards punishable by, say, the miscreant spending 10 minutes off the pitch in a sin bin, that would arguably have been about the right sanction but, in the real world, a newly galvanised St James’ Park crowd chorused: “You’re not fit to referee.”
All this edginess imbued Newcastle’s play with new-found adrenaline and Gordon missed a decent half-chance before the surfeit of emotion became too much for a volatile Guimarães who appeared to elbow Jorginho in the back of the head.
A dejected Arsenal rue their first defeat of the season. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
A VAR review concluded there had been no offence but the Arsenal bench were not alone in detecting a potential red card. When the Brazil midfielder subsequently slammed the ball straight at Havertz before coming close to blows with Declan Rice he looked in real peril of spontaneous combustion.
Alongside the impressive Longstaff and Joelinton, Guimarães generally played well amid a fierce midfield battle with Rice, but he needed to cultivate greater self control.
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Long before heavy rain began falling it had become abundantly clear that the onlooking Gareth Southgate was watching two teams harbouring precious little love for each other.
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As a former centre-half, England’s manager probably enjoyed Schär’s outstanding performance – how on earth is he not always an automatic starter for Switzerland – and must have been interested to see the England Under-21 right back Tino Livramento replace Dan Burn at the break when Kieran Trippier switched to left-back.
Southgate will not merely have noted that Livramento did well against Gabriel Martinelli but that Willock ran on and, almost instantly, changed the narrative. As a shot from his fellow substitute, Jacob Murphy, seemed set to fly into the Gallowgate End, the former Arsenal midfielder somehow kept it in play before crossing for Joelinton, who challenged Gabriel and the loose ball fell to Gordon who applied the finishing touch from point-blank range.
A triple VAR check ensued – had Willock allowed the ball to go out of play, did Joelinton foul Gabriel and was Gordon offside? – but, ultimately, the goal stood. As Howe jumped for joy, Arteta’s face turned as angry as the Tyneside sky.