He squared the centre-back up, forced his weight to go one way and went the other, before dinking it delightfully over the goalkeeper. That was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, diddling Kurt Zouma to win the FA Cup for Arsenal.
‘Where would X club be without Y player?’ is one of the more irritating questions in football. Manchester United do have Bruno Fernandes, Tottenham do have Harry Kane. It’s a pointless question until, of course, they don’t.
Generally teams find out the answer to that question when their star player leaves the club or when they’re out through injury. This must be one of very few occasions when such a question – in this case ‘where would Arsenal be without Aubameyang’ – was answered while that player is still at the club and playing.
For all of their possession in the first half on Monday (they were gifted it by Newcastle) any threat ended at the feet of Aubameyang, either through a poor decision – to dribble and not pass or pass and not dribble – or with a snatched, wayward shot.
He looked a husk of the man we so enjoyed watching destroy defences last season. But, husk or not, he remains Arsenal’s talisman. And as if to reinforce that point, his early goal in the second half breathed life into his team.
Thomas Partey manoeuvred the ball in midfield before spraying it to Aubameyang in space on the left. In a similar position in the first half a series of unsure touches meant he went nowhere, but on this occasion he was direct, squared up the defender a la Zouma and as is often the case with an out of form striker, he didn’t place it, just hit it bloody hard. The relief was palpable and the effect on the team was far greater than a goal from anyone else.
After being very laboured before the break, Arsenal were excellent from the moment the ball hit the back of the net. Kieran Tierney continued his fine form, Cedric Soares mirrored his threat on the right and Alexandre Lacazette – who was pretty good throughout to be fair – held the ball up beautifully and linked the real stars of the show, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka.
The bond between the two is a delight. All evening they were looking for and playing off each other – hitting one touch passes and interchanging positions – and they combined superbly for the Gunners’ second. Smith Rowe ran at Jamaal Lascelles, jinking this way and that with stunningly precise and confident little Grealish-esque touches, before picking out Saka in the box to side-foot home. Both of them are very, very talented footballers.
“I think the next two games are crucial to see the direction that we are taking and to reinforce all the things that we have improved on and the results that we are having recently,” Mikel Arteta said ahead of the Crystal Palace clash.
That first game gave us no indication of that “direction” – they were a muddled puzzle of everything and nothing. This was only Newcastle, but the free-flowing football of that second half, with Lacazette leading the line, the young duo buzzing around and the full-backs bombing on has got to be the way forward.
Arsenal’s next seven Premier League fixtures see them play Southampton (A), Manchester United (H), Wolves (A), Aston Villa (A), Leeds (H), Manchester City (H) and Leicester (A).
It’s a period that will determine whether they will challenge for the top six but could just as easily see them drift back into the bottom half of the table. The “direction” may now be clearer, but if the former is to be the case, they’ll need Aubameyang to lead the way.
Will Ford is on Twitter