Midway through the afternoon Unai Emery was quite possibly bracing himself for the sort of uncomfortable post-match scrutiny with which Arsène Wenger eventually became so wearily familiar. Emery’s Arsenal ended the first half seemingly barely able to string two passes together and apparently struggling to grasp their new instructions to advance with intricacy right from the very back.
At that point Newcastle United were pressing their guests into increasingly flustered submission and Rafael Benítez was clearly winning his battle of wits with Wenger’s success.
Benítez’s tactical plan was spot on but he lacked a striker sufficiently predatory to polish off Matt Ritchie’s stellar crosses, his playmaker Jonjo Shelvey was only passed fit enough for the bench and the scene was set for Granit Xhaka to ease his manager’s evident stress by reminding everyone that a moment’s inspiration is sometimes all it takes to undo any amount of perspiration.
Xhaka’s stunning free-kick entirely changed the narrative, prefacing what would become a comfortable Arsenal win which was sealed by a Mesut Özil goal before Ciaran Clark added an academic stoppage-time consolation. With an elegant swipe of a boot the harsh glare of the Premier League spotlight had switched to Benítez and his Newcastle United side’s worst start to a campaign during their Premier League history.
Early season top-tier statistics indicate that no goalkeeper has had more touches and done more with his feet than Petr Cech but Emery’s commitment to playing out from the back remains very much a work in progress.
Accordingly Cech, and his defence, frequently looked a little hesitant as Newcastle kicked off by bombarding their box with wave upon wave of attacks. Benítez has a habit of approaching games against the division’s elite with a five-man defence and mood of extreme caution but here he made a radical tactical departure.
It left Newcastle adopting an unusual front-foot aggression which largely succeeded in harrying their visitors out of possession by pressing them high up the pitch and rudely interrupting the majority of their attempts to allow Cech to initiate those patient buildups.
In marked contrast Benítez’s side have played more long balls – (almost 25%) – than anyone in the division, Neil Warnock’s Cardiff included, and have enjoyed the least possession of any team (37%).
Before Saturday such no-frills directness had only brought them one point – at Cardiff – but, with the decibel level rising every time Özil was bundled unceremoniously off the ball by Paul Dummett or Mo Diamé, it certainly seemed the ideal way to ruffle an Arsenal side who simply could not get their passing game going.
Benítez had raised eyebrows by selecting Jacob Murphy in a left sided attacking role but by persistently accelerating in behind Héctor Bellerín, the young winger enjoyed one of his better games in a Newcastle shirt.
A diving Murphy header which forced Cech into a splendid represented the closest either side came to scoring during an opening half punctuated by the lack of a killer final ball.
If Arsenal showed a glimpse of their potential in one glorious attacking cameo which concluded with Aaron Ramsey shooting over the bar after being cleverly released by the hitherto anonymous Alexandre Lacazette, Benítez seemed adept at countering Emery. Accordingly when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang briefly shifted attacking position, Newcastle’s manager ordered his full-backs, DeAndre Yedlin and Dummett, to switch position temporarily.
Emery replaced an out-of-his-depth looking Mattéo Guendouzi with Lucas Torreira in the midfield holding role and shortly afterwards the man Torreira was now deployed alongside issued a reminder that it is players rather than managers who actually win games.
All Benítez’s homework – and his team’s hard work – appeared in danger of going to waste as Federico Fernández fouled Aubameyang and Xhaka stepped forward to curl the free-kick into the top-right corner from considerable distance. Significantly it was the afternoon’s first shot on target and, although Martin Dubravka got the faintest of touches, Newcastle’s goalkeeper would have needed to be super-human to stop it.
The time had come for Özil to silence his doubters by scoring the second goal. When Lacazette’s shot was blocked the rebound fell for the German to apply the typically accomplished finishing touch from just inside the area.
Perhaps disrupted by the loss of their captain, Jamaal Lascelles, to injury, Newcastle were unable to sustain that early high tempo pressing game and were lucky not to concede a third when Lacazette cued up Aubameyang only for his fellow forward to shoot narrowly wide.
Clark’s eventual scoring header proved no consolation for Benítez or his team.