Matt Ritchie wheeled away in celebration, gritting his teeth and pumping his fists, his third goal of the season and the third of the game. Ayoze Perez took off in pursuit, his beaming smile reflecting the raucous 52,000 all around him.
Rob Holding was on the ground, face down, unable to watch. It wasn’t his fault, but you could have hardly convinced him otherwise in the moment.
Petr Cech exasperated, Shkodran Mustafi all at sea. Midfielders jogging, outworked and out-thought again. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looking on, disbelieving, unable to do much at all in the second half as things fell apart behind him.
This is the story of Arsenal’s away form in the year 2018, but it was one largely ignored once the shocking news of Friday hit home. It was expected but still the announcement seemed to come from nowhere. Arsene Wenger is leaving – and this away record is not how he would like to go out.
Throughout his time in the Premier League, Wenger has had his fair share of battles – tactically on the pitch and in the press conferences off it. He and Sir Alex Ferguson went to war. Time, space, and column inches consumed with thoughts of beating José Mourinho.
But his battle with Rafael Benitez has always seemed to float under the radar – largely down to the fact that both of their own struggles with the aforementioned Ferguson and Mourinho were to usually take centre-stage.
A rivalry based on a little more respect and a rivalry that’s gone very evenly-matched over time – Wenger has ten wins, Benitez eight, and six draws.
If this is to be Benitez’s final victory over the Alsace native, mind, it will go down as the most significant blow landed – not just because of the significance of Wenger’s now-imminent departure, but because it brought Newcastle United past the 40-point mark and into the top half of the Premier League table.
This is nothing short of a minor miracle.
Relegation did not put Benitez off the Newcastle job. Rather, he saw it as a fresh challenge, to compete in a lower tier for the first time since 2000/01 and to build a side crafted solely in his image, under his total control.
More down to coincidence than proper planning and decision-making, the passiveness of owner Mike Ashley suited the Spaniard perfectly, and he duly took Newcastle back up as champions,
But they did not have it all their own way and, coming into the season, looked to be in a precarious position.
A poor start did little to dissuade public opinion that a lack of investment would undermine the good work of Benitez. Newcastle simply didn’t have the squad to compete.
The improvement of so many players in the second half of the season for the Magpies has been quite hard to believe. DeAndre Yedlin has turned into a genuine overlap threat, finally fulfilling the potential that convinced Spurs to take a chance on him.
On the opposite side, Paul Dummett stands as a monument to Benitez’s coaching acumen, slowly morphing into one of the most defensively solid full-backs in the league. His positioning and awareness have come on tenfold, and his improved tackling ability screams of high confidence, confidence given to him thanks to the trust of his boss.
Florian Lejeune has been an absolute steal, possessing the calmness and ball-playing ability to play at a far higher level. Jamaal Lascelles has evolved into a war-beaten hero, the rugged figurehead of Championship success forcing his way into the England conversation.
Ritchie’s celebration reflected his style, all hard-running and chest-out moxie. Kenedy and Martin Dubravka arrived on loan in January and slotted in perfectly. Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame have both been reborn into the side’s aggressive axis, with Shelvey’s passing range adding a sprinkling of class into a team full of characters.
The right blend of class and character brought Newcastle their longest sustained Premier League success at the turn of the millennium, when Sir Bobby Robson built a side full of soul, style, daring, and a little bit of cheek.
Benitez’s CV far surpasses any boss that’s come to the club since and, while he may not possess the God-like love that Robson commanded, there is a significant belief in the “Cult of Rafa” that’s being cultivated.
If Ashley capitalises on this and backs his manager in the upcoming transfer window, Newcastle could easily be set up for a tilt at the European places next season.
The fans want it, Rafa wants it, but does Ashley want it?
While the temptation is to believe he does not, considering the penny-pinching nature of the Newcastle owner (save for his baffling backing of Steve McLaren and a successful go-around of Ligue 1 once with Alan Pardew) a good finish and a good cup run next season could deliver the club closer to the £350 million evaluation that Ashley is demanding to sell.
The takeover consortium that came into the picture at the turn of the year never got close to that figure, but backing Benitez now could be the best way for Ashley to finally cash in on an investment he has long since fallen out of love with.
Newcastle don’t just need money into the first team either – their training ground is of a laughable standard compared to the elite, and their youth record of season’s past speaks of squandered quality and distinct averageness, Dummett aside – but building from the top, on Rafa’s advice and wisdom, and a good season next year will make them very attractive to a new owner, something the fans, Ashley, and maybe even Benitez all want.
“When I came, I could see the potential of this massive club and the passion of the fans,” he said this week.
“After two successful seasons, I can feel this passion, the ambitions of the fans.
“My idea now is to sit down with the club and see if the club has these same ambitions.”
Benitez has done the hard work. Newcastle are in a strong position, tipped to go back down but now flying high in ninth. Relegation was no fluke, but the chance to permanently right the ship exists.
He has proved he can compete at the bottom as well as the top of the division, and he can deliver Newcastle back to the top eight permanently if he gets the support he needs this summer.
Their squad is not perfect. Mikel Merino and Jacob Murphy are the only real prospects amidst a back-up brigade of Championship quality, waning future stars, and Isaac Hayden, and they still do desperately need a striker of genuine quality.
Then there is the genuine lingering thoughts that last Sunday’s defeat could indeed herald the dawn of a new era for Benitez – one that sees him takes over the Arsenal job.
But if the same improvement in the first eleven can filter its way through, Benitez stays, and Ashley does the right thing this summer for every party and backs his manager to the full, we could see the Magpies soaring once again next season.
Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena.