It seemed fitting that Newcastle’s final active part in this game, deep into stoppage time, should feature Dan Burn wheeling away deep on the left wing, bouncing red shirts out of his orbit, cheered wildly by an away support led by a pink, shirtless quivering man who seemed utterly intoxicated by this spectacle, mainlining it, high on that sweet, sweet Big Dan Burn energy.
This was a thrilling, messy, infuriating 0-0 draw; a messy, shirt-grappling, highly entertaining wrestle of a game. This was the kind of game where half of the stadium crowd screams and punches its fists at the fourth official’s electronic board for the crime of showing a mere five minutes (only in football do people scream furiously, genuinely wounded, at a digital board).
In stoppage time there was a shout for penalty, refused by VAR, that saw Mikel Arteta hauled away from the touchline, gripped with skinny-jeaned fury. And Arsenal will feel the referee was a little vague, a little too easy on spiky, awkward opponents. But a point here was a still a good point; and an excellent one for Newcastle, who were powerful, organised and just nasty enough.
Really this was a Dan Burn gig. The night’s least likely headline act was everywhere, that vast muscular Dan Burn head present like an Easter Island monolith in every shot. Here he is again, beating the turf in search of a penalty. There he goes, ploughing back into his own half after a set piece, a footballer who seems always to be hurling himself into an offshore headwind.
Burn’s 90 minutes added up to five headers, six clearances, and somehow, by some amazing feat of misdirection, only two fouls. But really he seemed to spend most of the game filling space, a one-man mosh pit.
In the course of which he also closed down the most dangerous right flank in the league, filling that space with Dan Burn elbows, a Dan Burn force-field. It seems unlikely Saudi’s Project 2030 had this in mind while poring over its coming plans for global visibility and soft power outreach. Gaze upon our Dan Burn and tremble. But at the Emirates he was undoubtedly the heart of this thing.
This is pretty good going for a player who wasn’t really supposed to be in this team right now, at least not at left-back. Burn came in for Matt Targett and was so good he kept the spot. Still, though, all the projections suggested a weak spot to be exploited by Bukayo Saka. And it took two minutes to get a first run at his man.
It looked alarmingly easy at the time. Saka didn’t even have to jink or swerve, just ease into the space beyond as Burn rotated like a broken forklift truck and began to pound at the turf in retreat.
This already looked like an open channel.
But in the event Saka only saw the ball once more on that side in the opening 20 minutes. It is one of the occasional flaws of a system based team. You might have the run of your man. There might be an obvious tender spot to be picked at. But the patterns are the patterns. There will be no concession to wanging it out to Bukayo every 20 seconds in the old-fashioned, make it up as you go style.
Sometimes this can feel like a chance missed. Burn didn’t have to face Saka again until he was bedded into the game, steady on his feet, backed by relentless doubling up from Joelinton, who was excellent here.
There is a fury to Arsenal’s football, a state of the art kind of physicality. Saka is relentless, constantly nagging and chafing a modern day enforcer. But somehow Burn’s flank stayed intact. He seems to have a kind of Velcro quality. Shirts stick to him, human flesh seems to want to bounce constantly off his chest and thighs.
Just past the hour Saka produced a wonderful emergency stop by the touchline, sending Burn careering past him like a caravan caught in a mudslide. But even in that moment Joelinton was lurking faithfully in the edge of shot, the hot dog seller in the background of history.
And Newcastle did shut down some of Arsenal’s strengths. Martin Ødegaard is usually so smooth, so diligent and courteous in his passing you half expect to look down and notice he’a playing in a tuxedo, hair perfectly oiled. But here he was pressed to the edge of things.
Newcastle wasted time and made the game messy, created ragged edges, put some bad energy around the place. Arsenal, who want this thing to flow, to make you run and turn and grow dizzy, were taken up with arguing over Callum Wilson leaving the pitch too slowly, or Burn chucking the ball away.
Steadily things got naughty. Eddie Nketiah and Ødegaard were booked for spoiling fouls. Granit Xhaka was booked for an ankle-chopping lunge.
Arsenal will feel, correctly, that they could and should have won this game. Nketiah played really well, looked a high-class centre forward, and will regret not killing the game late on. But Newcastle were tactically versatile here, didn’t press high or leave space on the flanks. They are a spiky team, with a real shared energy, and in Burn had a man having the time of his life in north London. Arsenal face a tough run through winter into early spring. In time this might look like a point gained.