LONDON – If Mikel Arteta needed confirmation that the youthful vibrancy of Arsenal’s last fortnight points their most sustainable way forward, then it was provided emphatically here.
His side had flattered to deceive against Newcastle for long periods of a game in which underperformers such as Nicolas Pépé and the careless Willian, both comprehensively upstaged in the league of late, failed to state their cases. The cavalry, when they came during the second half, were led by the 19-year-old Bukayo Saka and the 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe. There was no escaping the subsequent improvement and, when Smith Rowe finally broke the deadlock 11 minutes from the end of extra time, it felt as if some of Arteta’s more senior players were edged closer toward the point of no return.
Newcastle’s FA Cup campaign certainly was, although they competed admirably and would have rendered the additional period unnecessary if Andy Carroll had scored one of two glorious second-half chances. They were left to regret that when Smith Rowe, who had arrived just before the hour, won possession 30 yards out and laid the ball off instantly to Saka before peeling into the box. When their fellow substitute Alexandre Lacazette nodded on Saka’s floated pass, Smith Rowe was on hand to control with his chest and finish crisply off Martin Dubravka’s far post.
“He’s becoming more and more important to the team and he showed it again when he came on,” said Arteta of Smith Rowe. “The personality that he plays with, we ask him to be more in the box and today he scored a really important goal for us.”
Smith Rowe would not have been on the pitch to provide it had VAR not produced one of its better outcomes. With the 90 minutes’ final action he caught Sean Longstaff with a late tackle and was immediately shown a red card by Chris Kavanagh. “I was going mad,” said Arteta, who had caught swift sight of a replay. Kavanagh was afforded the same after a check from Andre Marriner at Stockley Park; after consulting his pitchside monitor he correctly downgraded the punishment to a booking and Smith Rowe could prime himself for the headlines.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tapped in a second goal before the finish and, on recent evidence, anything that keeps his head up is another bonus. It came after a low centre from Kieran Tierney, who had grown into the game’s dominant force as it progressed. That is no mean feat for a player in his position but on current form there is no better left-back in the Premier League than Tierney, who matches boundless energy with incisive forward running and a reliably precise final ball. Fielding him alongside Saka and Smith Rowe guarantees a collective zeal and intent that Arsenal have struggled to discover with any kind of regularity in recent years.
Tierney’s accuracy ensured a scoreline that felt slightly harsh on Newcastle. They had limited Arsenal’s first-half openings, although Willian blazed wastefully over after Dubravka had parried from Aubameyang, and grew bolder after the interval. Carroll spurned his first opportunity while Smith Rowe was waiting to come on, sidefooting across Bernd Leno and wide with the goal at his mercy after Jeff Hendrick had drilled into the penalty area. His second, in added time, would have won the match but he allowed Leno to block superbly when one-on-one.
“There’s nobody more disappointed than Andy that he didn’t take it, but the way he led the line was terrific,” Steve Bruce said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with how they’ve gone about their work, we just needed to take that big opportunity when it came along.”
His observation about Carroll’s overall performance, which included a number of booming clearances from Arsenal set pieces, was fair. Dubravka also excelled, saving a header Joe Willock should probably have converted and tipping over a thumping Granit Xhaka volley in extra time. But Arsenal showed the cool heads where it counted and can dream of retaining the trophy they won in August.
Arteta will hope Gabriel Martinelli is available for the rest of their cup defence but there was immediate concern when the Brazilian, who has rivalled Smith Rowe for impact since his return from injury, rolled an ankle during the pre-match warm-up. He was led down the tunnel and replaced in the starting lineup by Reiss Nelson.
“He was in tears, he was in a lot of pain,” Arteta said of the player he discovered in the dressing room. “It didn’t look good and I imagine we’re not going to have good news with him.” At least Smith Rowe and his cohort seem capable of providing plenty of it, come what may. – The Guardian