As Rafael Benítez strode towards the centre circle and acknowledged a richly deserved standing ovation, yet another grisly Arsenal inquest was about to begin.
At the end of an afternoon when, courtesy of a fourth successive win, Newcastle United emphatically banished any lingering relegation fears, the rather fixed expression on Arsène Wenger’s face indicated that, once again, it was time to reach for his metaphorical tin helmet.
With the music blaring and locals serenading Benítez to the tune of a specially adapted version of La Bamba, debates raged in all corners of the stadium. Had the impressive Jonjo Shelvey finally done enough to convince Gareth Southgate to offer him a place on England’s World Cup flight to Russia? Might Benítez’s achievement in overseeing Newcastle’s collection of 22 points from a possible 36 since New Year’s Day earn him the manager of the year award? And, crucially, will Arsenal’s failure to collect a single point on the domestic road during 2018 finally spell the end for Wenger in north London?
They may be looking forward to a Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid but this was the visitors’ fifth straight Premier League away defeat. It provided plenty of clues as to why Wenger’s side remain a disappointing sixth, only four places ahead of Newcastle.
In mitigation, Arsenal’s Europa League quarter-final draw at CSKA Moscow on Thursday night was followed by a 5am Friday landing at Luton airport. After a dominant first-half display here, that rude awakening appeared to catch up with them, with fatigue clearly intruding.
Initially though a visiting XI featuring the 18-year-old attacking midfielder Joe Willock making his league debut looked neither overly tired nor missing the absent Mesut Özil – given the day off.
Instead Alexandre Lacazette volleyed Arsenal into an early lead at the end of a wonderfully fluent attacking move also featuring Shkodran Mustafi’s 60-yard pass and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s adhesive control and intelligent square ball.
It was Aubameyang’s second visit to the north-east, the first having come when he played 2012 Olympic football for Gabon at St James’ Park. Then Aubameyang and friends limbered up with a friendly at nearby Northern League club Heaton Stannington, where he caused quite a stir by arriving in a pair of £2,500 Swarovski crystal-encrusted trainers.
Ayoze Pérez – who cost Newcastle a relatively modest £1.5m – is unlikely to ever command the £56m that Arsenal paid for Aubameyang but, almost imperceptibly, the young Spaniard has grown into what initially seemed an unnatural No 10 role in Benítez’s hallmark formation.
So much so that Pérez has now scored three times in the last three games, with the latest pulling Newcastle right back into things on Sunday.
In some ways almost a carbon copy of Arsenal’s opener, the equaliser began with a fine 50-yard delivery from Shelvey. Once Dwight Gayle had brought the playmaker’s pass under seamless control and Mustafi – defensively disappointing throughout – negligently stood off, the striker fed DeAndre Yedlin. The right-back’s superb low cross was met by Pérez’s right foot and the ball arrowed beyond Petr Cech.
Martin Dubravka’s arrival on loan from Sparta Prague in January has been a key factor behind Newcastle’s renaissance – significantly Lacazette’s goal was the first the Slovakia goalkeeper had conceded at St James’ Park – but bar a momentary brain freeze on Willock’s part he would surely have been beaten again just before half-time.
When Mo Diamé slipped, Lacazette was gifted possession and the striker’s pass seemed to have cued the teenager up for a memorable goal but Willock got his feet in an awful tangle and a glorious chance evaporated.
The afternoon had turned into an intriguing tactical duel between Arsenal’s slick possession game (featuring the odd encouragingly mature cameo from Willock before his replacement by Danny Welbeck) and the counterattacking strategy that has enabled Benítez to overachieve greatly this season.
If the containment capabilities of the vastly improved Jamaal Lascelles and Paul Dummett should not be underestimated, Shelvey’s defence-splitting contributions alongside the quietly influential Diamé have frequently changed games. Against Arsenal Shelvey did much to suggest that Southgate is wrong to continue turning a blind eye to his England candidacy. After all, an unusually subdued Mohamed Elneny would surely not relish facing Shelvey and Diamé every week.
As Elneny and company’s legs grew heavier, Islam Slimani, on for Gayle, created Newcastle’s second goal with a header across the area. That delivery allowed Pérez to contribute a clever dummy and neat flick, leaving Matt Ritchie to lift an accomplished chip over Cech, with Nacho Monreal culpable.
With Slimani creating havoc, Kenedy subsequently hit the bar and the Blaydon Races was sung ever louder. Beneath a tepid April sun, one team was crumbling. For once, it was not Newcastle.