Glorious attacking and goofy defending: here was a match that encapsulated the madcap appeal of this season's Premier League. The sides took it in turns to err and excite before Newcastle flagged and Arsenal signalled their top-four credentials by blowing the visitors away. The goal spree was thanks in no small measure to Theo Walcott, who struck a startling a hat-trick and created two other goals yet still did not resolve the debate as to whether he is best used as a centre-forward or a winger. Evidently he can be dangerous in both positions, and also frustrate in both.
Alan Pardew finished by far the most frustrated man at the Emirates, blaming fatigue for the fact that Arsenal were able to kill his team off in the dying minutes. While Arsenal had enjoyed a Boxing Day break thanks to the cancellation of their game against West Ham, Newcastle had come out of the wrong end of a thriller at Old Trafford and Pardew said that strain accounted for his side conceding four goals at the Emirates after Demba Ba had drawn Newcastle level for the third time in the 69th minute.
Arsène Wenger confessed: "The result was not an accurate indication of the match." Certainly, at half-time it seemed unlikely that Arsenal would catch fire so spectacularly because the first half was a damp squib of a display from Wenger's team, as Newcastle initially showed no ill-effects from their Old Trafford ordeal.
Ba, who has been linked with a January move to Arsenal, should have rewarded their brisk start with the opening goal in the 16th minute. Four minutes later Walcott, who until then had been redundant as a lone striker owing to one-star service, was given his first decent pass of the game and duly took his chance to outshine the Senegalese, springing a poorly conceived offside trap to collect Lukas Podolski's ball and stroke a low 15-yard shot past Tim Krul and into the far corner. "That was a Thierry Henry-style finish," Wenger said, suggesting the Englishman is benefiting from being mentored by Henry in training.
Podolski gave Walcott a chance to further embellish Arsenal's first-half performance when he eluded James Perch and slipped the ball through to the striker. This time, however, Walcott failed to beat the advancing Krul, who smothered his weak shot.
There was nothing weak about Cheik Tioté's shot in the 41st minute, and Wojciech Szczesny diverted the 30-yard drive over the bar with difficulty. Arsenal cleared the ensuing corner and Walcott led a promising a counter-attack before sparing Newcastle by misdirecting a pass to Santi Cazorla.
Ba gave the scoreline a fairer look when he equalised two minutes before the break, as his 20-yard free-kick deflected off Jack Wilshere and past Wojciech Szczesny. One-one and little omens of the larks ahead.
"We suffered for big parts in the game, especially in the first half. We were a bit nervous and had problems winning the ball back from them," Wenger said.
Arsenal began the second half as if they had spent the interval being berated by their manager. They could have regained their lead in the 47th minute when Wilshere played the ball to Podolski, who teed up the overlapping Kieran Gibbs. Krul beat away the full-back's shot from seven yards. But Arsenal kept coming. In the 50th minute Podolski won the ball after a Newcastle throw-in and knocked it infield to Santi Cazorla.
The Spaniard picked out Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at the far side of the box and the 19-year-old fired low and hard into the corner of the goal. On the hour mark, Newcastle drew level with the help of wretched Arsenal defending. Gabriel Obertan waltzed his way into the area and sent the ball across the face of goal. Sylvain Marveaux, alone at the back post, tapped in from two yards as perplexed Arsenal defenders looked accusingly at each other. The confusion soon switched to the other end. Wilshere dispossessed Cheik Tioté in midfield before swapping passes with Podolski and driving into the box and clipping a lovely cross towards the back post. Fabricio Coloccini could only head it on to his own bar and Podolski arrived to nod into the net.
Then Arsenal's defence relapsed. In the 69th minute the excellent Marveaux played a wonderful cross with the outside of his foot over the dozing Gibbs, and Ba volleyed into the net from six yards to equalise again. That is when the strain of the match against Manchester United began to show, according to Pardew. "When we got back to 3-3 we should have shut up shop," he said. "We just couldn't do that.The energy levels between the two teams was evident."
Four minutes later, Gibbs, clearly better going forward than at the back, raced into the area to collect a pass from Podolski and pulled it back to Walcott, who placed the ball perfectly into the roof of the net from nine yards.
Olivier Giroud then entered the fray and Walcott reverted to his more familiar berth on the right wing, quickly creating his side's fifth goal by crossing for Giroud to send a plunging header into the net from close range. The substitute then scored again when the ball broke to him following another jagged run by Walcott, who saved his most eye-catching contribution for stoppage time, when he turned up on the left wing and scampered into the area before showing splendid composure to ignore a foul and dink the ball over Krul.