Newcastle gave Arsenal their first defeat of the season in Premier League with a 1 – 0 home victory on Saturday, thanks to a controversial second-half goal by Anthony Gordon in the 64th minute that stood after a lengthy VAR review.
For the first time in 64 minutes, Arsenal’s exceptional defense erred. Gabriel made a mess of dealing with a Newcastle long ball, the ball breaking to Jacob Murphy, whose low shot seemed to be drifting out of play. It may well have but Joe Willock chased that lost cause. Neither Ben White, William Saliba nor Jorginho moved to close down the Newcastle substitute, though the latter was pointing at the danger. No one closed down their man and Willock lobbed a cross to the back post, one misjudged by David Raya, whose swing of a glove connected only with the driving rain of a northeast night.
Joelinton rose above Gabriel but his header deflected off the defender’s back. On hand to stab the ball home was Gordon. What followed was four minutes, six seconds of agony for anyone, whether they had a rooting stake in the game or not. Surely the VAR officials could just get on with it? Then again, there was a lot to check.
Had the ball gone out of play before Willock controlled it? There was simply no available evidence to judge for certain. From the only angle shone on the broadcast, it looked like the ball had rolled out but, a reminder for those who forgot Japan knocking Spain out of the World Cup, a football is a sphere. It might look out from one angle but unless that one comes from down the line, there is no way of knowing.
Then came Joelinton’s jumping with two arms into the back of Gabriel. Such challenges have been given as fouls before but Stuart Attwell had seen it and there was no overwhelming angle that suggested undue force from the Newcastle midfielder. There then seemed a distinct possibility that Gordon was ahead of Raya and therefore offside. The absence of any lines gave it away. VAR Andy Madley and his assistant Stuart Burt could not find a camera from which to make a conclusive decision.
The ball might have been out of play. Joelinton might have been too forceful. Gordon might have been offside. Ultimately, however, VAR found no conclusive evidence that proved the goal could not stand. In such circumstances, there is only one fair course of action, no matter how apoplectic Mikel Arteta and his players might feel.
“We have to talk about how the hell this goal stood,” he said. “I feel embarrassed. I have to be the one coming here to try to defend the club and ask for help. It’s an absolute disgrace that this goal is allowed.
“It’s not a goal for more than one reason. There’s too much at stake. We put in so much effort. It’s so difficult to compete at this level. I’ve been more than 20 years in this country. This is nowhere near the level to describe this as the best league in the world.”
Arteta would continue to rage and understandably so. In that final sentence, he perhaps hit the crux of the issue. Why were there so many moments in Gordon’s goal where VAR was in the dark? When Kaoru Mitoma just kept the ball in for Japan against Spain, FIFA was swiftly able to offer decisive proof. Would a semi-automated offside system have established whether Gordon was offside? The clubs had opted not even to vote on introducing it in the summer, in the belief that the technology may become outdated in the years to come. If any league can afford to keep up with the march of technology, it is the one that takes in £10 billion in broadcast revenue.
Madley concluded that he did not have the evidence to say Newcastle’s goal was invalid. Even officiating body PGMOL would have to acknowledge, however, that he had insufficient tools for the moment.
Between this one dramatic incident and the string of clumsy fouls and cynical challenges from both sides — another referee might well have sent Kai Havertz off for a foul on Sean Longstaff while Bruno Guimares was equally fortunate that Madley did not think Attwell had missed a red card challenge when he seemed to swing at Jorginho off the ball — the actual sporting contest seemed rather peripheral to the event. The imperious Saliba anchored a defense that held Newcastle, top scorers coming into this weekend, to just that one contentious moment.
The hosts were no less assured defensively, Jamaal Lascelles particularly authoritative under the late bombardment. The Arsenal of last season, or even one with Gabriel Jesus in their side, might though have put more remorseless pressure on the St. James’ Park goal, particularly after the opener. Before then they could reasonably claim to have been controlling the contest, grinding down their hosts and setting themselves up to ease through the gears late on. Once Gordon struck there was insufficient guile to break down a low block, no one stretching play in behind or getting into shooting positions. The delta between Eddie Nketiah’s best and worst is simply too great if he is going to have to play a sizeable role in a team that aspires to win the title.
Such a stuttering attack should, however, be assessed in light of what had just happened to Arsenal. The visitors wandered around in a daze because of the baffling circumstances they found themselves in. It is perhaps no surprise they couldn’t come out swinging. They had just been hit by the mother of all sucker punches.
That is what tonight will feel like for Arsenal, a defeat that ends their unbeaten start to the season and serves as a reminder that there will be an almighty tussle not just for the title but for the top four in the months ahead. Were they robbed? They have no way of knowing for certain. More concerningly, neither did the officials.
Mikel Arteta continues to offload in the press conference. “We have to talk about how the hell this goal can stand up … it is incredible … I feel embarrassed, but I have to be the one coming in here to defend the club and please ask for help, because it is an absolute disgrace that this goal is allowed … it’s an absolute disgrace … it’s not a goal for many reasons … we put so much effort in, and it is so difficult to compete at this level and this is an absolute disgrace … I have been more than 20 years in this country, and this is nowhere near the level to describe the best league in the world, I am sorry … I don’t care what they say … whatever they say, it is too late … I don’t want to be in the hands of people … there is a lot of things … it’s simple, it’s not a goal … we lost three points today, do you know what that means? … it’s too hard, it’s embarrassing … it’s incredible, honestly … I feel sick to be part of this.”