After a trying week off the pitch, Arsenal provided the perfect response on it, beating a tough West Ham 2-0 to move into the top four. TOP FOUR! Ok, it might temporary, but it’s still nice to be there.
Mikel Arteta picked an unchanged side, keeping faith with the players who had started in the 3-0 win over Southampton, and I thought we played ok for the first half hour. West Ham sat in looking to counter, and we found it hard to make opportunities. Still, there was something about us. When Coufal caught Kieran Tierney with a flailing arm, the Arsenal players reacted. I wrote about this last week, and while Steve McManaman on BT Sport was blathering on about how you don’t want to see that, I was thinking ‘I absolutely want to see that’.
We finished the first period strongly. The live-wire Bukayo Saka created the kind of chance for Granit Xhaka that a man who can move his legs vaguely quicker than a sundial would have done more with, his shot was blocked. Kieran Tierney’s dipping effort was tipped onto the bar by Lukasz Fabianski, who then went on to save from Alexandre Lacazette, from which Gabriel Martinelli was denied the rebound by some smart defending.
The second half began with a bang, we got the goal we needed and it was a beautiful one too. Lacazette picked up Gabriel pass, turned, saw the run of Martinelli and played it between the defenders. His first touch was perfect, his pace too much for Coufal and Dawson, and the finish was perfectly curled into the far corner. It was eerily reminiscent of so many of Thierry Henry’s Arsenal goal. What am I talking about? There was nothing eerie about it, it was just superb.
1-0 up, would we continue to play? I think we tried, but there were a couple of moments for West Ham when we were careless more than anything they did themselves. Ramsdale had to make a save when Odegaard and Xhaka weren’t on the same wavelength, but in general this wasn’t quite the ‘Go ahead, sit off’ scenario we’ve seen in the not too distant past. Nevertheless, I felt some nerves.
Those should have been put to bed earlier than they were, when Coufal picked up a second yellow card and Arsenal were awarded a penalty. At the time I thought it was a very generous decision, but having watched it again a few times, I can see why it was given and the red card issued. Lacazette made absolutely sure to let the referee know he’d been caught, it’s just a shame his spot kick didn’t match the rest of his performance. It was a bit weak, and Fabianski made a good save.
I wondered if Martinelli might come off. He was on a yellow and there was an iffy foul on Antonio which made have resulted in a second. However, Emile Smith Rowe came off the bench for Odegaard with about 20 minutes to go. We had some chances. Gabriel hooked one wide from a corner, Martinelli created a great chance for Saka which was deflected inches wide by some last-ditch defending, and at 1-0, even though they were down to 10 men, it was hard to fully shake the Everton game from the front of my mind. Would that penalty come back to haunt us?
Martinelli went down with cramp off the pitch, and Mikel Arteta – who looked as up for it as any manager can ever look – marched over, picked him up, and told him if he’s going to go down, do it on the pitch so play doesn’t go on with us down to 10 men too. He was replaced soon after by Eddie Nketiah. In the final stages we were beginning to sit just a little too deep for my liking, but then Tomi won the ball, Saka took it forward, fed Smith Rowe who drove towards the box and fired a left-footed shot into the bottom corner to make the game safe. It’s 7 in 12 for him since he opened his account for the season in the EFL Cup in September, and those goals from midfield are so important right now.
We saw out the final stages, the final whistle blew, and a young, determined Arsenal team had earned the reward of a big win over a rival, the three points, and a position in the top four. After the week we’ve had as a club, this was the perfect reminder that the only thing that really counts is what you do on the pitch. Also, coming after those two disappointing games against Everton and Man Utd, when the siren song of the Champions League places lured us onto the rocks, we navigated choppy waters to produce a performance and a victory that was also an important statement to make.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:
I’m really pleased with the performance, the attitude, the commitment and the quality that we showed in the game, and the chemistry that we generated again with our supporters. To win a game at home is really important, because it sets the tone of the team against a really good side that is very difficult to dominate the way we did today.
And he trod that fine line between being rightly pleased with what we did and how we did it, and keeping feet on the ground:
We’ve made some progress but there’s still a lot to do and we have to be aware of that. We’ve had some bumps in the road but I think we have learnt a lot from them, first of all because we have stuck together, from the top of the club to every member of the team and the staff. The biggest compliment I can give, and the players are feeling exactly the same way, is the way that we have our crowd behind us. To see that chemistry between team and crowd is unique – and I’m so proud of that.
Collectively it was good, but individually there were some outstanding performances. By some distance that was Lacazette’s best game for us in a long time, while it’s impossible not to look at the likes of Martinelli, Saka, White, Gabriel, Tomiyasu and not feel excited about our future. 20, 23, 23, 22, with a 20 year old Smith Rowe coming off the bench and being so confident in himself and his form that he ensures three points that might have squandered ended up securely in our possession.
It’s amazing to think that he couldn’t get a start last night, but Martinelli has been so good of late, and was particularly eye-catching last night. Not just the goal, but the way he worked, harried, hassled, and it was telling, I think, that the manager referenced what he sees as an important development in his game afterwards. This competitive dynamic in the squad right now is great to see, it’s pushing these players to take their chances.
What was also very clear from last night’s performance and result is that the players were not in any way distracted by the Aubameyang stuff. I didn’t really expect them to be, but it was good to see that the togetherness and the way they worked for each other wasn’t in any way impacted. That’s as much as I’m going to say about that situation until we have more information, we’ve had enough of it this week, and today the focus should be on a really positive night, before turning to the weekend and the need to replicate that away from home when we visit Leeds on Saturday.
For now though, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to bask a little in the warm glow of the kind of win that suggests our progress is genuine, tangible and evidenced by the league table right now. Let’s keep it up.