The quest for meaning, the need to form the unbearably random constituents of our existence into some kind of order, to create a narrative or a value-system, to believe it all somehow matters – it seems integral to humanity. But sometimes a late-season game between two sides with nothing much to play for is just a late-season game between two sides with nothing much to play for.
And yet, of course, that very meaninglessness is itself meaningful, a sign both of Rafael Benítez’s success and Arsène Wenger’s failure this season. When the sides met in December, there were 14 places between them, less because Arsenal were threatening to challenge at the top than because Newcastle were in grave danger of relegation. Little has changed for Arsenal but Newcastle are all but safe, as even Benítez acknowledges now they have broken the 40-point barrier. Their form since the turn of the year has been remarkable.
It was pleasant enough, particularly for home fans who could celebrate their fourth straight home win and their first victory over Arsenal at St James’ Park for 13 years, and there were two very fine goals, but this really was perfect post-Sunday lunch fare: undemanding and gently soporific.
Martin Dubravka in the Newcastle goal perhaps enjoyed meeting his hero Petr Cech, a player who he used to have a photograph of on his locker at Sparta Prague. Islam Slimani relished his second-half appearance from the bench, laying on the winner and unsettling Arsenal with a series of bullocking runs. But the most telling statistic was a yellow card count of one, and that awarded in injury-time. Nobody was really that bothered.
Even Wenger’s team selection made clear that the league is no longer really a priority. Chelsea may be in range, but the difference between finishing fifth and sixth is largely academic. The focus now is on the Europa League and the possibility of Arsenal’s first European trophy since 1994, which meant Wenger had scope to give run-outs to a few squad players and youth graduates.
From those changes, perhaps something was learned. When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was signed from Borussia Dortmund in January, the obvious question was what that meant for Alexandre Lacazette. The doubts about the balance of the squad have not gone away but at least here were a few snippets of evidence that the two can play together, the Gabon forward offering a pace and directness from the left that optimists perhaps once hoped Danny Welbeck would provide. It was Aubameyang’s cross, having gathered a sumptuous pass from Shkodran Mustafi, that brought the opener from a stretching Lacazette volley.
Whether the two can play together with Mesut Özil in the side is an entirely different matter. Here the German was rested as the 18-year-old Joe Willock was handed a league debut. The youngest of three brothers to come through at the Arsenal academy but the only one still at the club, Willock did not have the most impactful of games, his most notable contribution being to stumble over a pass from Lacazette that may have been intended for Aubameyang and that came as something of a surprise given the French forward could have shot.
But nobody seemed much minded to heed lessons anyway. The opening goal was a perfect case study in the dangers of playing a high line without applying pressure to the man on the ball, yet the Newcastle equaliser stemmed from precisely the same source – and if there’s any player in the Premier League who cannot be offered time to drop a long pass over the defence it is Jonjo Shelvey. The midfielder is an unpredictable, frustrating player but the one thing he has done consistently over his career is execute that sort of ball.
Other than that there was a reminder that Jamaal Lascelles and Florian Lejeune constitute a very useful centre-back pairing, that Kenedy is probably too good for a midtable side and that Arsenal’s defending is not that of a team with realistic aspirations of the Champions League. But all of that we already knew.
In fact if we learned anything it’s that nobody ever learns anything much. Newcastle remain limited but game, Arsenal gifted but fallible, particularly away from home. The game bubbled along pleasingly enough, but the general lack of edge, the faint whiff of futility, spoke of Benítez’s achievement in effectively securing safety with five games remaining.