Saturday, July 2, 2022

Arsenal’s Champions League hopes hang by a string as they run out of steam at Newcastle

The race is not run yet, but for Arsenal, it certainly feels like they have crashed into a brick wall just as they were dipping their heads at the finishing line. It is not just that they need to break out of their own negative spiral, but that they need the worst team in the Premier League to bail them out.

A week ago, every one of Arsenal’s most reasonable dreams seemed within reach. Not just Champions League qualification but a chance to end Tottenham’s hegemony in North London. They could even have done it on their great rivals’ patch. Two games later, those aspirations seem as realistic now as they did when they sat at the bottom of the Premier League, no points and no goals to their name after three games.

All the undeniable progress that was made between then and this 2-0 defeat to Newcastle will feel like it counts for nought if it doesn’t come with the prize of Champions League football. Unless Norwich can beat Tottenham on the final day with the Gunners also overcoming Everton it is fifth place, this is a step up from where they were in their first two seasons under Mikel Arteta, but a cause for major disappointment given that they were four points clear at kickoff on Thursday. 

The demons of derby day were on Arsenal’s shoulders. Arteta had tried to put that 3-0 humiliation in the past as soon as the final whistle was blown, but these players looked like they had come straight from the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. What may well have ultimately cost Arsenal top four is their inability to take a defeat, hermetically seal it, throw it into the deepest pit in North London and move on. 

Aaron Ramsdale took to the St. James’ Park a bouncing ball of buzz, giving every impression that this task held no fear for him. In his actions, though, it was clear that something was up. Perhaps the answer was rather prosaic, a player who slipped on each of his first three long kicks might just have needed some new boots or to adjust to the turf.

Yet it felt like there was more up with Ramsdale and those ahead of him than just the conditions. The radiated nerves of the players, the passes sent to trailing feet, options vanishing under the pressure of the Newcastle press. Miguel Almiron charged at Nuno Tavares and kept on chasing when the ball went back to Ramsdale. A heavy touch from the goalkeeper and that sinking feeling hit those away fans up high in the Leazes Stand. The ball flew off Almiron’s shin but wide of goal.

Arsenal were living dangerously, their goalkeeper engulfed in the sands of self doubt. When Sean Longstaff crashed in a cross from the right, a pair of weak gloves might have pushed it into more danger. Ben White, who like Gabriel was clearly hampered by the muscle injury he was playing through, just about got rid. Arteta had three-quarters of his back four on the pitch but none looked at ease. After a brutal examination from Allan Saint-Maximin, Takehiro Tomiyasu was forced off before the interval. Cedric Soares, the replacement, was a crushing reminder of why he fell short.

When the goal came, he was scarcely back in the Arsenal half. With no one to stop him, Joelinton charged down the left, firing low at the near post. As Callum Wilson shaped to volley home, White stuck out a despairing leg, diverting it past Ramsdale. A team that had lost all six of the Premier League games in which it had fallen behind before Monday night looked short on those who still believed. You could not fault their effort, every player seemed to be using every last drop in the tank, but this felt like a team that does not know it can get across the line.

Seasoned warriors at Liverpool, Manchester City and even Tottenham (think Harry Kane and Heung-min Son) know what is needed in the big games. Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, to whom players much older looked as the hunt for the goal became more desperate, will be better next time for their struggles on the night.

Newcastle’s second always seemed more likely than an equalizer. As Arsenal threw too many tired bodies up the pitch, Wilson charged in behind and though Ramsdale was on hand to parry it, the ball only went as far as Bruno Guimaraes.

In a moment, a season of burgeoning unity, one in which Arsenal supporters fell in love with their team again may have been swept away, certainly if the most vocal elements of the club’s online fanbase are to be believed (though that is generally an unwise thing to do). For a young side, this could be a defining moment for the right reasons, one where they decide they never want to go through so crushing a low again. And yet as the grim specter of Thursday-Sundays in the Europa League looms large, as another year without St. Totteringham ticks past, it must be hard for anyone in red to see that. This merely felt like a gut punch.

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