History, as they say, has a way of repeating itself. It was nearly a year ago when Arsenal, with a Champions League spot in the balance, traveled to face Newcastle in the penultimate match of the season. The Gunners, battered and bruised after an emotional loss against Tottenham, limped into St. James’ park in desperate need of a win. It went about as poorly as possible, with the hosts coming out on top 2-0, Arsenal’s CL hopes dashed in a matter of 90 minutes.
Now, it’s Deja Vu all over again, but with much more massive stakes. Arsenal have not been mathematically eliminated from winning the Premier League yet with 3 more matches left to play after Sunday, but anything less than a win from here on out all but shuts the door on any title hopes for the Gunners. And, as fate would have it, the road once again runs through Newcastle.
In almost any other season, a win against Newcastle would be all but a formality. Arsenal have dominated this fixture since the dawn of the PL. Over the last decade, the Gunners have won 17 of the 20 meetings between the two sides. To call it one-sided would be underselling it.
But if there has been any club that has rivaled Arsenal from the Most Improved Side mantle, it would far and away be Newcastle. Under Eddie Howe, the Magpies have gone from a perpetual low-to-mid table side to one of the favorites to finish in the top 4. Factor in the Saudi oil-money that hasn’t even begun to be spent yet, and Newcastle look poised to become one of the league’s
new villains latest sides to perpetually challenge for a spot in the Big 6.
Not only have Newcastle become the best defensive side in the league, their attack has begun to catch up down the stretch, with score lines of 6-1, 4-1, and 3-1 over their last three matches. Summer signing (and one-time Arsenal target) Alexander Isaak has finally found his form. With Liverpool rising and Manchester United nipping at their heels, they still have yet to lock down a top 4 spot, so they have little reason to ease off the firepower just yet.
The timing of their form and circumstance couldn’t be any worse for the Gunners. Despite a perfunctory win over an abysmal Chelsea, Arsenal are, once more, walking a thin line of health in key positions late in the season - specifically the defense. Takehiro Tomiyasu is out for the season, and William Saliba may as well be, with little to no progress made on his back injury. And now, Gabriel is a potential match-day decision after being subbed off in the second half on Tuesday with an ankle injury.
Arsenal’s attack found their feet against Chelsea, but if the defense is comprised of Rob Holding and Jakub Kiwior at centerback heading into Sunday morning, the pressure for the attack to produce will only amplify.
One of the biggest positives from the Chelsea match ahead of Newcastle was the performance of Jorginho in the place of Thomas Partey. His passing and composure kept the midfield clicking, alleviating pressure in the middle with relative ease. Sure, it was Chelsea, but Arsenal have been in desperate need of solidity through the middle. It was good to see Jorginho step up and provide that. Can he do it again in a raucous environment with so much on the line? I suppose that’s why Arteta was insistent on picking him up. Experience matters.
On the attacking front, the big issue is how to fit Leandro Trossard into it. Supplanting Gabriel Martinelli, his performance on Tuesday was dynamic and kept Chelsea on their heels. The choice of speed vs control against Kieran Trippier will be a huge decision for Mikel Arteta. Conversely, Bukayo Saka has begun to look knackered after playing nearly every possible minute available for club and country this calendar year. Fresh legs from either Reiss Nelson or Trossard might give the attack a new look and additional spark.
Like the Manchester City match, Arteta needs to be note perfect on his team selection and tactics against Newcastle. He got it horribly wrong last Wednesday. Has he learned from the punishing loss last week? Sunday will be the acid test.
Arsenal’s incredible season has already borne fruit in the form of Champions League berth. But with even a sliver of a chance of winning the title, there’s no reason for the club to hold back. A win on Sunday, and the dream stays alive.
WHAT: Arsenal at Newcastle United
WHEN: Sunday, May 7th, 11:30am EST/7:30am PST/4:30pm BST
WHERE: St. James Park, Newcastle
HOW TO WATCH: Broadcast live on the USA Network. Streaming on NBCSports.com
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