While Tottenham’s 3-0 win over Arsenal in the north London derby appeared to grant them the momentum in the race for the Premier League’s top four, Arsenal still control their own destiny; win their next two games, and they will reach the Champions League.
That is easier said than done. Rob Holding will be suspended after his red card against Spurs, while Gabriel picked up what Mikel Arteta described as a “muscular problem”. It leaves Arsenal down to the bare bones in defence. They come up against a much-improved Newcastle whose home form is dramatically better under new manager Eddie Howe.
The Athletic’s Arsenal writers Art de Roché and James McNicholas discuss the key talking points ahead of the game, with a little help from our Newcastle United writer George Caulkin.
How will Arsenal line-up?
Art: Given this isn’t Chelsea or Spurs away, the usual 4-2-3-1 should be fine.
James: I agree. Also, I’m not sure we’ll have enough central defenders to play a back three. Gabriel is most likely out and Rob Holding is suspended.
Art: Yeah, Holding’s suspension and Gabriel’s injury mean most of the rejigging comes in the back four, while the front six remains the same. My XI would be Ramsdale in goal; a back four of Cedric, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Nuno Tavares; Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka in midfield; then Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli behind Eddie Nketiah.
James: I wouldn’t stray too far from that. My only change would be Emile Smith Rowe starting over Martinelli on the left – but we’ll come onto that later.
I do wonder if Arteta will be giving some consideration to dropping Xhaka into the defence. He’s done it before, and he spent much of the Spurs game filling in there too. I wouldn’t do it, personally – I think he’s too important to the midfield – but there is precedent for Arteta making that call.
Does that XI fill you with confidence?
James: Not exactly, no. Arsenal’s turnaround in the first half of the season was based partly around being able to consistently field the same defensive unit of Ramsdale in goal with Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel and Tierney in front. That’s a far cry from the makeshift defence we might see at St James’ Park.
Art: It’s not ideal, but the centre-backs provide some comfort. White may be returning from injury, but allows Arsenal to defend higher with his recovery pace and is key to their build-up play in possession.
Tomiyasu’s ability to play equally well off either foot leaves little concern with him moving to left-sided centre-back. Arteta even cited it as a possibility last month, saying: “It gives you a lot of solutions, not only because from right-back he can use both feet, but he can play right centre-back, left centre-back and left-back.”
“That gives you enormous variability and it’s the way he has been coached from a really young age.”
His assured decision-making when defending will also be vital, especially playing inside Nuno Tavares. Despite having loose moments defensively, the left-back has been useful to Arsenal going forward at various points in the season and that area of his game must be fed off again.
James: I think Tomiyasu is a good complement to Tavares on that side. It’s worth pointing out he also regularly plays as a left-sided centre-back for Japan. I think White and Tomiyasu is a very decent centre-half pairing – it’s the full-backs that worry me most.
Art: Cedric may have a tough night facing Allan Saint-Maximin, but that is where support comes into play. Rather than leaving him isolated, having Elneny drop to double-up could help.
James: In the same way, Xhaka can lend some support to Tavares on the opposite side. He did this well in the game against West Ham.
Smith Rowe or Martinelli?
Art: This was the one position I was having an internal debate over. Tavares and Martinelli have not formed a great partnership on the left flank, while Smith Rowe’s ability to retain possession and speed up play could be crucial.
Martinelli’s ability to stretch defences is what made me choose him, however. The through-ball between right-back and centre-back for him to chase is incredibly effective. Against Leeds United, Xhaka was sliding those passes through while Tomiyasu drifted inside from left-back against Spurs to make that pass.
James: It’s a toss-up every week between these two. It’s true that Martinelli has been one of Arsenal’s better players over the past two games, but I’m just not convinced the chemistry between him and Tavares on that side is quite right. I also think he comes into the fixture relatively fresh could be valuable.
Art: Last season at St James’ Park, Martinelli assisted Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after receiving wide left. This season against Newcastle, he scored after making an out-to-in run off the right wing. That movement in the final third could be essential.
James: You’re talking me round. To be honest I would be content with either starting – both are effective substitutes so it’s a nice problem to have.
Art: Same here.
What about Newcastle? Let’s ask George Caulkin about their recent revival.
George: I feel a bit stupid saying this bearing in mind they’ve just been hammered 5-0 by Manchester City, but the key to Newcastle’s survival revival has been organisation and solidity, everybody pitching in. Take City and Spurs out of it and they haven’t conceded more than once per game in 2022. They’ve done all of it without Callum Wilson, who is still their top scorer with six goals, but he came on as a substitute at the Etihad Stadium and so did Kieran Trippier, their statement signing in January. Their return is quite exciting and gives the team a different dimension.
James: The news of Trippier’s return has, I’ll admit, filled me with a sense of dread. His Spurs connection and set-piece ability both trouble me. After looking solid at dead-balls all season, Arsenal have now conceded direct from corners in two consecutive games.
George: It has been an epic, miserable, uplifting season on Tyneside all in one go. What might hit Arsenal and their supporters most vividly as it comes to a close is just how loud the atmosphere is, whatever the result. It hasn’t felt like this for a very long time.
What are the positives for Arsenal?
Art: Arteta did well to shift focus straight onto the Newcastle match by calling the Spurs defeat “history”. The main objective has to be playing the football that got them four successive wins before Thursday, which the midfield and forwards should be able to do.
James: I think amid all the disappointment of Thursday night, people forget that Arsenal are still fourth, still a point clear of Spurs. It’s still absolutely in their hands. Two wins and they will silence the doubters and achieve their goal. It will be difficult, but it’s achievable.
Art: Elneny and Xhaka are a solid pair, Odegaard and Saka combine extremely well irrespective of who starts on the left and Nketiah offers threat both with and without the ball up front. Arsenal are still in the driving seat for top four, they just have to play like it.
James: Also, Spurs have to play Burnley at midday on Sunday. I expect them to win, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. Any dropped points there would be a huge boost to Arsenal’s chances.
What will be worrying you over the weekend?
Art: Arsenal’s response time, both in-game and post-game, does raise concern. If they concede first, they cannot allow their record in those circumstances to go to 10 losses in 11. Similarly, they cannot afford for this to become another run of consecutive defeats.
James: The last time Arsenal lost 3-0 and lost a couple of key personnel, against Crystal Palace, they lost their next two league games. They just can’t afford that at this point. They need to get straight back at it.
Art: If Newcastle take the intensity out of the game early on, it could be a very long night. Starting fast and maintaining that vigour throughout is a must.
Additional reporting: George Caulkin
(Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)