For much of an overcast Tyneside afternoon Arsène Wenger wore the dissatisfied expression of a man forced to travel to Europe by cramped budget charter flight rather than first-class private jet.

Threatening only sporadically from open play, his slightly jaded-looking Arsenal players did not exactly arrive in the Champions League in style but the important thing is that, for a 16th successive season, they have got at least as far as August's play-offs.

With Wenger's team struggling to translate control into goals, winners can rarely have proved more priceless than Laurent Koscielny's scrambled, close-range decider. As the final whistle blew, Wenger, suddenly wreathed in smiles, hugged his staff, players and even Alan Pardew, a managerial rival with whom he has not always enjoyed the most cordial of technical area relations.

Seconds earlier the home manager had applauded the opposing bench, a classy gesture that, nonetheless, can only have intensified the pain felt by his club's backroom staff. Mike Ashley, Newcastle United's owner, had promised everyone from the St James' Park tea ladies to the kit-man a share in a £1m bonus if Arsenal were beaten and several employees must have felt that a winning lottery ticket had just been blown out of their hands by a capricious, particularly cruel, breeze.

Judging by Newcastle's recent home form – featuring nine goals conceded in the previous two games here against Sunderland and Liverpool – cynics may say Ashley had taken a distinctly low-risk gamble but this was a sufficiently improved performance from Pardew's players to, at times, threaten to part him from his cash.

Early signs were certainly not entirely encouraging for Wenger. The moment when Fabricio Coloccini all too comfortably knocked Theo Walcott off the ball and the ease with which the overlapping Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa dodged Per Mertesacker before the home left-back unleashed a dangerous cross did not bode well for the visiting manager's peace of mind.

If they were mighty relieved to see Papiss Cissé shooting fractionally over the bar after connecting with that cross, Wenger's players had already realised that they were up against a very different Newcastle side from the sorry ensemble of recent surrenders in front of the Gallowgate End.

Wenger's Champions League mission was hardly aided by Pardew's decision to configure his team in the flexible 4-3-3 formation which invariably seems to add much needed fluency to Newcastle's game.

A mild afternoon had begun to turn a little chilly but, perhaps feeling the heat created by potentially being forced into a most unwanted Europa League diversion by Tottenham Hotspur, Wenger removed his jacket. The not so subliminal message was that Arsenal needed to roll up their sleeves.

They almost took a sizeable step towards much more coveted Wednesday night fixtures against sides such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich when Walcott saw a free-kick deflect off Coloccini and sail fractionally wide of a post.

Steve Harper, Newcastle's 38-year-old third-choice goalkeeper playing his final game for the club after 20 years at St James' Park, looked suitably relieved. Later, as the electronic clocks clicked on to 37 – the goalkeeper's shirt number – and St James' Park offered him a wonderful, spontaneous ovation Harper was spotted wiping away a tear. As "only one Steve Harper" echoed round the ground all those seasons spent sitting on the bench understudying Shay Given and, more recently, Tim Krul, must have seemed fully worth it after all.

By then Wenger's frown lines had deepened in the wake of some heavy limping on Mikel Arteta's part. With the gamble on the influential midfielder's fitness having failed, he was replaced by Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain.

The newcomer found himself up against opponents whose starting XI included five of his manager's compatriots. Among that French quintet Hatem Ben Arfa, especially, provoked assorted problems for a visiting defence in which Koscielny held commendably firm even if Mertesacker still seemed uneasy.

Impressive throughout at the other end, Coloccini and Steven Taylor protected Harper admirably, leaving the goalkeeper possibly slightly disappointed to be so underemployed during a tight first half in which the better half-chances fell to Newcastle. Worryingly for Wenger, Arsenal were not their usual selves in open play and, with Cheik Tioté cramping some of Santi Cazorla's customary creativity and Aaron Ramsey's passes regularly going astray, Lukas Podolski remained on the game's periphery.

Harper's slapdash clearance at the outset of the second half had Geordie hearts in mouths but when Walcott shot low towards the bottom corner, the goalkeeper stretched out a hand and, finger-tipping it to safety, redeemed himself leaving Taylor to clear as Cazorla homed in.

Harper though was soon picking the ball out of the net and Wenger not only putting his jacket back on but buttoning it up. Significantly, Arsenal's goal came from a set piece, Koscielny hooking home from three yards after Mertesacker headed on Walcott's free-kick.

Arsenal were finally in control and slowing the game down at every opportunity. Yet as news filtered through from White Hart Lane that Gareth Bale had finally scored for Tottenham, Wenger - who offered Jack Wilshere a late cameo -looked rueful when Walcott's shot rebounded benignly off a post and relieved as Olivier Giroud made a surprisingly effective tackle to deny Ben Arfa. A neutral dropping in from Mars or Venus would never had guessed that Newcastle narrowly avoided relegation, but single games do not reflect entire seasons. As Pardew acknowledged: "We should have done better." Happily for Wenger, Arsenal had done just enough.

Man of the match Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)