I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a bit surprised to be acknowledging Arsenal’s place in the Top Four so soon after some unmentionable performances but that as is where we find ourselves. I’m under no illusions that this could very well be a short-lived stay with games in hand all over the shop but points on the board is cash in hand.
With this obese median, the reality is that there are quite a few teams at the upper end that are still wildly inconsistent themselves and no Premier League game is a given this season. West Ham may have taken some big scalps but their scarcely-rotated squad may just be beginning to show signs of wear, and that is only going to get worse with the Christmas fixture congestion and the ongoing fatigue that comes with European football.
On the night, Arteta and the players got everything right and it was a continuation of joint-league-leading form at home. The front three stole the show and all dropped flawless performances but there was a cohesion to everything Arsenal did on the night and West Ham were second-best on every front. Arsenal dominated and led before any contentious decisions could mar the performance and I’m once again left hoping that our worst times are now behind us. Seeing performances like that make you question how it’s even possible after the performances at Old Trafford and Goodison Park but that remains Arteta’s biggest riddle.
I don’t usually think it’s right that forwards are given more credit than the rest (see Ballon D’Or nominations by position) but on the night, West Ham were especially miserable because of the threat Arsenal posed in the final third. Saka had one of his best ever games in an Arsenal shirt and even with West Ham doubling and even tripling up on him, he was still the biggest threat because of the unpredictable use of his varied qualities and Masuaku will be especially glad to see the back of him.
Martinelli was his usual self but there was somehow.. more. He must be a nightmare to play against because he never stops running and harrying, and there’s only one thing on his mind when Arsenal are in possession. He seems to have reigned in some of his urges because he’s less singularly focused (for the better) but his understand of the final third is still his biggest asset. The resemblance of his finishing to a certain #14’s is obvious but for someone of that age to be taking a single touch – in full stride – and then stroking the ball away so casually is a joy to watch. He also seemed keen to put on a show for his family in attendance judging by what he did to Soucek. It might seem like just a bit of impudence but sometimes, you need to make it clear that you’re fearless and strike some fear into the opposition because you only need to look at the space Saka makes for others by pulling in such a crowd to stop him.
I never felt like Arsenal were on the back foot, a calmness seldom enjoyed these days, and the only time I was slightly uncomfortable was after the red card and penalty miss. That is at least typical when teams go down to 10 men anyway. The sense of calm was largely thanks to keeping Antonio a quiet man, and he barely had a sniff of goal all game. If White wasn’t snapping at his heels, winning the ball high up the field, Partey, Tomiyasu and Gabriel were all capable of running with him and breaking his momentum. The same can also be said of Declan Rice, who despite coming on leaps and bounds this season, was bypassed and nullified throughout.
There was also a welcome acceptance to the art of shithousery, which is long overdue. Steve McManaman was quick to lambaste the players for crowding Anthony Taylor after the first coming together but it’s often the case that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. For a long time, I never liked how often teams would crowd referees. Ferguson pioneered the technique, and Mourinho was also dependent on it, but Arsenal’s decade of meekness constantly left them at a disadvantage. While Lacazette has always seemed to be well-versed in the art, last night was a shift by the collective to fight for any affliction and maximise advantages. It may have come too late to see McArthur or Lascelles see red, but some of the antics from yesterday will hopefully demonstrate how avoidable some of our recent embarrassments are. Martinelli naively suffering from cramp only a few feet from the hallowed turf, wrenched back to his feet only to be tactically plopped down again on the “right” side. I’d have rathered that had happened with Thomas Partey in the North London derby but it’s better late than never. I also suspect our clamouring had a part to play in the eventual penalty decision, granted at our 3rd or 4th time of asking. It seems to have divided opinion but I still can’t understand how that’s a penalty and the challenge on Saka wasn’t, so frustratingly similar to Luiz’ against Wolves last year. On balance, it was still “understandable” that it was given and that’s where the game is at nowadays. While I didn’t agree with it at the time and still think it’s a weak defence for our involvement in the Super League, I’m reminded of Josh Kroenke’s sentiments about being “left behind”; if we don’t play the game on every level, we’re the only ones who suffer.
In Lacazette, there’s a player who has always understood what’s been asked of him, even if he hasn’t always been physically able to do so. I think Arsenal’s best performances under Arteta have come when he’s been in the side, and there’s no one better at linking play than him. He also seems well-equipped in establishing clear relationships and I can’t recall a better example of him disrupting lines than against West Ham. With such an intelligent runner to work with, the goal that broke the deadlock was as simple as it gets in the end. As far as the captaincy goes, it was unsurprising that Arteta reverted to his senior citizens but I suspect this may just be until the end of the season as he gets a better grasp on some of the longer term options. For now, if Lacazette can stay fit, he seems up to the task.
I’m also especially happy with the win after hearing David Moyes’ bizarre take on vaccination and diversity – he’s never won against Arsenal and I hope that wait continues.