This season has brought many unexpected results, both for Arsenal and up and down the table. But the ease at which Arsenal controlled the match against Chelsea hasn’t been seen in probably two decades. Once a fearful derby for the Gunners appeared straightforward, even with the recent dip in form. Kiwior and Jorginho came in nicely and will likely be called upon again in what will be Arsenal’s toughest match left this season - a trip to Newcastle.
After recovering from a tough four-match run with a win over Chelsea, a trip to Newcastle isn’t the ideal next stop for Arsenal. Two teams well-surpassing expectations this season, but Newcastle’s defense has been formidable this year, and even more so at St. James’ Park. They dropped an odd 3-nil result against Aston Villa, but have since followed it up with three straight wins of 6-1, 4-1, and 3-1. They’ve only lost once at home since the World Cup break, and that was mainly down to the early red card Nick Pope received against Liverpool.
Ahead of this match, we spoke with Graeme Bell from Coming Home Newcastle to discuss their rapid improvement, potentially returning to the Champions League, the summer transfer window, their defense, and Sunday’s match.
TSF: The turnaround has been swift at Newcastle. After five straight seasons finishing between 10th and 13th, Newcastle is a near-lock for the top four. Even with the new owners & Eddie Howe, did you expect things to improve this quickly?
CHN: I expected things to improve but definitely not at this rate. I don’t think even Howe or the owners thought they’d be close to Champions League football this season. This season I saw us breaking into the top ten again and challenging for a Europa Conference League place. The job Howe and the players have done is incredible, it’s not all about money as many have suggested. The likes of Jacob Murphy, Joelinton, Sean Longstaff, Miguel Almiron, and Fabian Schär have all improved dramatically. That’s something money can’t buy, it’s down to impeccable management.
TSF: The last time Newcastle finished in the top four was the 2002-03 season with Alan Shearer as their top scorer. Now 20 years later the club is returning to the Champions League. What are the reactions you are seeing from the supporters, both in terms of the success on the field and the avenue they’ve taken to get there?
CHN: We’ve not confirmed the Champions League yet, and it’s more of a nervy/excited wait until we do. As a Newcastle fan, it’s normal to be a bit cynical! We are just enjoying the journey we’re on, there’s no pressure on the players from the supporters right now as they’ve gone way above expectations.
TSF: Like Arsenal, returning to the Champions League puts more pressure on building out the squad depth. What will be Newcastle’s top priorities in the summer transfer window?
CHN: Defensive midfielder will be at the top of the list. Currently, Newcastle’s midfield depth is very low. Longstaff, Bruno, Willock, and Joelinton play the majority of the games and after that, there’s not much to call on. A DM will allow Bruno to be played further forward and influence games more.
A left-back and a winger will likely be on the list too, as will a young striker to learn from Wilson and Isak and can steadily make his way to first-team contention.
TSF: A lot of attention goes to Newcastle’s attackers (Wilson, Almiron, Isak, etc.), but the club has conceded the fewest goals in the league (27 in 33 matches). Which defenders have made the biggest step forward this season compared to last year, and may not be getting the plaudits they deserve?
CHN: Fabian Schär has improved massively. He was terrific under Rafa Benitez but like a lot of players suffered under Steve Bruce. Schär’s partnership with Sven Botman has been key to that defensive record.
TSF: What is your predicted starting XI for Newcastle this Sunday and a final scoreline prediction?
CHN: Predicted lineup: Pope | Trippier, Schär, Botman, Burn | Longstaff, Bruno, Willock | Murphy, Isak, Joelinton
I think this will be a really tough game for Arsenal, St James’ Park is absolutely rocking this season and it’ll be difficult for the Gunners to play their natural game. I think Newcastle will win this one 3-1.
Thanks to Graeme and Coming Home Newcastle for chatting before this weekend’s game.