Arsenal hit the ground slowly
Arsenal 2, Newcastle United 0: Arsene Wenger may like to win with style but the Arsenal manager will hardly be complaining at this more laboured success. Nothing as vulgar as a Chelsea long ball was seen from his players but sweat, patience and a dose of good fortune were required to see off a dogged 10-man Newcastle United.
Only when Freddie Ljungberg won a dubious late penalty did Arsenal break opponents weakened by the even more contentious first-half dismissal of Jermaine Jenas. Newcastle defended in numbers and made no serious attempt to score, but there was a lack of incisiveness and width to much of the home team's play.
This did not look a game of 10 against 11 until Thierry Henry had tucked away the penalty, forcing Newcastle to open up and giving Arsenal confidence to score a fine second. No serious analysis of Arsenal's title hopes can be made yet but several of their experienced players, notably Dennis Bergkamp, Henry and Robert Pires, are still searching for their best.
Though Arsenal spent the second half attacking, it had not been difficult to imagine a well-organised Newcastle gaining a point. Alexander Hleb and Robin van Persie made important impacts after coming off the bench but the fluidity of passing and speed of movement that marks them at their most dangerous were missing. Arsenal next face Chelsea on Sunday.
"We know we can be much sharper and stronger," Wenger reflected. "It was vital for the team (to win). I think overall we were a little bit apprehensive as a unit because in our heads was an important game."
Such, perhaps, is the psychological pressure that comes from challenging Chelsea, who apparently retain the knack of winning when not at their best.
Even in defeat Newcastle will find encouragement. Scott Parker, a £6.5 million signing from Chelsea, was excellent anchoring their midfield, showing energy and making good tackles and blocks. The 19-year-old Steven Taylor impressed in the centre of defence and Shay Given looked sharp when called upon. Emre Belozoglu showed flashes of invention with his ability to beat players and release quick passes.
It was plain, though, why Newcastle are searching for a partner for Alan Shearer, who was isolated in a 4-5-1 formation even before Jenas's explusion in the 32nd minute. Shearer had his team's only notable shot, which flew wide in the 17th minute.
Newcastle had nonetheless looked comfortable when, to their amazement, Jenas was shown a straight red card by Steve Bennett for a tackle on Gilberto Silva. The challenge was poor and from behind, sending the Brazilian crumpling to the turf in pain after Jenas careered into his standing leg while stretching for the ball.
It seemed more worthy of a caution but a directive has been issued to clamp down on dangerous tackles and Bennett explained he felt Jenas had been reckless, endangered an opponent's safety and used excessive force.
Yet anyone expecting that to herald an Arsenal breakthrough was mistaken. Newcastle retreated into a defensive shell and continued to clog central midfield as Lee Bowyer tucked in and Arsenal showed a surprising lack of width. Henry, often so potent down the left, puzzlingly kept largely to a central role and Pires was having little impact. Though Arsenal conjured two chances before half-time, Given saving from Kolo Toure and Henry heading over, they were not able to build momentum.
"They had a competitive advantage because they have started their season already," Wenger said of Newcastle's short Intertoto Cup campaign. "I could see from the start of the game we had problems to change our pace, and Newcastle were sharp and clogged the middle of the park."
Patience was required as Arsenal pressed and Newcastle showed no inclination to trouble Jens Lehmann. Good blocks in the penalty box by Parker and Taylor showed Newcastle's tenacity and it was tempting to think Arsenal would be frustrated when Given denied Henry and saved well from Ljungberg after a rare show of fine interplay.
Wenger did not share that view. "It looked like it would come sooner or later," he said, and he was right as Ljungberg burst into the area and fell in a collision with the substitute Charles N'Zogbia. It looked a penalty but replays suggested the Swede had lost his balance after kicking the ground, even if there was also some contact.
"We were maybe a little bit fortunate to get the penalty," Wenger said, but there was nothing lucky about Arsenal's second. A sweeping counter-attack culminated in Lauren picking out Ljungberg, whose cross was expertly squeezed in at the near post by van Persie.