Arsenal vs Newcastle United: The Premier League’s own self-aggrandising, self-loathing derby
An awful lot has changed since these two sides met on the opening day of the season at St James’ Park, yet they are locked on the same points and are more similar than either club realises
Those making their way down south left the ground encouraged and relatively optimistic. Nothing over the top: this was only a 1-0 win, after all, and maybe the least convincing of the 13 achieved in the previous 14 meetings.
But a classy finish from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, an assist for a 21-year-old Ainsley Maitland-Niles and an away clean sheet secure at the first attempt having managed only one in the previous campaign were ample nourishment for the ride home. A sign of greater efficiency to come from Unai Emery?
For Newcastle fans there was a sense of, “well, what did you expect?”. Steve Bruce’s first game in charge gave the opposition almost 62 per cent possession which was not as jarring as the tactics going forward, which relied more on the odd second-ball than the coherence Rafael Benitez had instilled last season.
In the lead up to the game, a joint statement on behalf of 10 protest groups called for a boycott of this fixture to once more pressure Mike Ashley into selling the club to a “genuine and ambitious buyer”.
Here we are, then, six months on for the return fixture on Sunday at the Emirates. Though Ashley may still be pulling the strings, things have not panned out as expected.
One of those managers is gone, and not the one you’d have put money on back then. Both sides are level on 31 points, separated by two places. Though neither fanbase are particularly happy in a meeting that pits 10th against 12th, only one team will boast of their position.
Arsenal and Newcastle might not to admit it, but they are a lot alike. Big clubs situated in the focal point of a thronging city, owners reluctant to invest and, at one time, gainfully employing Mathieu Debuchy.
But perhaps the strongest bond they share is an ambition to reclaim former glory. And though one has more recent exposure to it than the other, their kinship is of being perennially anxious in the present. The glass is always half empty.
Under Mike Arteta, Arsenal are unbeaten in 2020 but in the way that the majority of us have never lost a Super Bowl. What positivity there is around the brand of football the Spaniard is trying to imprint on his players is tempered, as ever, by results. He has just one Premier League win under his belt up against five draws and one defeat.
What belief he has that Arsenal can still qualify for the Champions League despite having to make up a gap of 10 points in the 13 remaining matches – they could, of course, win the Europa League – is as fanciful as it is “the right thing to say”. Offering tactical structure and empowerment to a group of players previously devoid of both cannot really have a full effect without something to strive for in the short term.
Similarly, Bruce this week contested the notion he and his side – but mostly him – had been lucky. Again, there are a couple of ways to spin what we see before us including his words which, like Arteta’s, would be counter-productive to offer any alternative view.
Newcastle are currently on their longest run without defeat since a six-game streak from April into May 2018. But for regular observers – and no one is harsher on Newcastle’s style than their own fans – the football has been as patch as that opening day. Yet somehow, they have continued to move forward.
That’s reflected statistically, too. They are averaging 9.9 shots a game in the league which is the lowest since 1997/98 and maybe even beyond then given Opta’s records only began keeping tabs on this statistic during that campaign. In terms of expected goals and points, they are about 10 and 14 better off than they are “supposed” to be.
But applying metrics to what Newcastle and Arsenal do feels somewhat foolish given their propensities to surprise and self-destruct. They are two of the few cubs that draw impartial observers in the way you might rubberneck past a crash.
While one certainly has the wood over the other when it comes to support in the stands, they are both active outside the stadium.
It is no coincidence high-level executives of both clubs have tried to broker meetings akin to “peace talks” with their respective supporters’ groups to appease them during troublesome periods. A senior figure at Arsenal even reached out to the Arsenal Trust because their work on holding the owners to account and particularly analysing the publicly available financial reports was “too effective”.
Even if this fixture has been one-sided – Newcastle have lost seven in a row at the Emirates since Andy Carroll scored in a 1-0 win back in November 2010 – there have been moments that, anecdotally at least, create the illusion of an unpredictable match-up.
The 4-4 and Tiote’s last-minute winner, followed by Steve Harper’s people’s elbow. The often forgotten 7-3 a year later. Laurent Robert inspiring a turnaround at Highbury. Bergkamp turning Dabizas inside-out at St James’ Park. Ashley draining a pint in view of the Emirates – officially the first reported sighting of an exposed wang among Newcastle’s travelling supporters.
Sunday will likely play to type in a home win that moves these two apart. Arsenal buoyantly towards what will ultimately be a failed top-four bid, Newcastle nervy of a relegation scrap they are currently seven points beyond but would be very "them" to be sucked into.
In many ways, this is a “rivalry” of two sides who best encapsulate the fluctuating emotions not just of supporters but humankind, where insecurity stems from an unwavering sense of worth. The Premier League’s own self-aggrandising, self-loathing derby.