It’s been 44 days since a ball was kicked in the Premier League. For Arsenal, the break for the 2022 FIFA World Cup could not have come at a worse time. As football broke itself up for an unprecedented mid-season international tournament, Arsenal had to put their red hot form on hold.
Some six weeks removed from their comfortable 0-2 win over Wolves, Arsenal returned to action with a Boxing Day bonanza at the Emirates Stadium against David Moyes’ struggling West Ham.
There was only one notable absentee from Arsenal’s usual starting XI. Gabriel Jesus picked up a long-term knee injury when in Qatar for the World Cup, meaning that Eddie Nketiah has the unenvied task of filling Jesus’ boots for several months.
Despite that, Arsenal had their usual starting XI ready to go. Even William Saliba, who was on the bench for his nation’s disappointing World Cup final loss to Argentina, was back in time for the match.
Whatever sings of rust that other teams had shown throughout Amazon Prime’s Boxing Day blowout was not showing for Mikel Arteta’s side.
Arsenal started off as they usually do, comfortably in control.
West Ham defended well, however, and though Arsenal created some interesting chances (and even had the ball in the net but for an offside call), West Ham’s resolute defending had to be admired.
Despite this, it was the visitors who took the initiative early on.
A slide-rule pass through the Arsenal midfield released Jarrod Bowen, who raced into the Arsenal penalty area, only to be tripped by the onrushing William Saliba. Michael Oliver did not hesitate and instantly pointed to the spot.
It was a blow to Mikel Arteta’s side, who had desperately tried to open the scoring. They were forced to watch on in disgust as Saïd Benrahma slotted his penalty straight down the middle, beating Aaron Ramsdale.
Arsenal continued to pile on pressure. It looked as though they may be handed a lifeline in the form of a handball from Aaron Cresswell. Michael Oliver once again, dutifully pointed to the spot, before the VAR was called in to point out that the ball had hit Cresswell’s head, not his hand.
Arsenal went in at half-time, a goal down.
The second-half showed an Arsenal possessed. Whatever pressure they had been throwing at West Ham in the first half was now increased ten-fold in the second.
West Ham had an early chance that was well-defended by Thomas Partey and well caught by Aaron Ramsdale.
From there, it was one-way traffic.
Martin Ødegaard had been dancing away from defenders all game and he was a man on a mission in the second half.
Soon, Arsenal had their opening.
Ødegaard’s tame edge of the box effort spilled into the path of an unmarked Bukayo Saka, who slotted the ball into the far corner to bring the hosts level. West Ham’s appeals for an offside were in vain as the hapless Vladimír Coufal had been playing Saka onside.
Arsenal took heart from that and began to pepper shots on the West Ham goal. Thomas Partey struck one from range that was well-saved by former-Gunner Łukasz Fabiański.
However, the Polish goalkeeper went from hero to zero in a matter of minutes.
As Arsenal played the ball from left to right, Gabriel Martinelli made his way into the penalty area and let off a low effort into the near post.
Fabiański, expecting the ball to be squared, scrambled to get a foot to the ball, but he was too late. The ball had already sneaked in at the near post and Arsenal had the lead for the first time.
Arsenal were not done yet though.
Excellent play from Benjamin White, allowed Martin Ødegaard to play a ball into Eddie Nketiah, who expertly spun around Thilo Kehrer to smash the ball into the bottom far corner to round off the scoring nicely.
The final whistle blew out on a vintage Arsenal display as they cement their place at the top of the table.
It was a match of high quality from Mikel Arteta’s men.
While the team did rather disappointingly find themselves a goal down, it was very much against the run of play. Arsenal may have found themselves a goal down, but they never gave up in trying to find an equaliser.
The main standouts on the night were Eddie Nketiah and Martin Ødegaard.
Nketiah has been an unfair point of derision among Arsenal fans of late. The injury to Gabriel Jesus has not exactly had Arsenal fans desperate to see more of Nketiah, however, the youngster showed his worth against a tough West Ham defence.
His goal will be spoken about for some time, but it was his link-up play and movement that cemented his performance. Nketiah was a handful on the night and West Ham simply couldn’t handle him.
Another man the West Ham defence couldn’t handle was Martin Ødegaard. The former-Real Madrid man was dancing through tackles like they weren’t even there. No matter how much West Ham tried, they just couldn’t get the ball from him. All he was lacking was a goal, but those will surely come soon and he was a well-deserved Man of the Match.
However, it was not just on the pitch that Arsenal took centre stage. Situated high above the furiously gesticulating Mikel Arteta was none other than Arsène Wenger, his first appearance at the stadium since his departure in 2018.
Wenger, himself already famed for highly technical displays in his teams, was treated to a masterclass in attacking football from his footballing love.
To see Wenger return to the stadium he helped build and to have his name sung around the stadium by the fans was a nice touch.
Whatever any Arsenal fans think of his legacy, he was arguably seeing the fruits of his own labour below him. His greatest ever pupil, Thierry Henry, was on punditry duties for Amazon Prime, his former-captain was the manager of the club and his careful financial management has allowed that man to build a team that can compete for the Premier League title alongside another of his former midfielders.
He’s welcome back anytime.
1.) Aaron Ramsdale
4.) Benjamin White
12.) William Saliba
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney (Zinchenko 73’)
5.) Thomas Partey (Elneny 95’)
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Martin Ødegaard
7.) Bukayo Saka
11.) Gabriel Martinelli (Vieira 88’)
14.) Eddie Nketiah
30.) Matt Turner
16.) Rob Holding
17.) Cédric Soares
35.) Oleksandr Zinchenko
25.) Mohamed Elneny
23.) Albert Sambi Lokonga
21.) Fábio Vieira
85.) Amario Cozier-Duberry
West Ham United team:
1.) Łukasz Fabiański
5.) Vladimír Coufal
15.) Craig Dawson
24.) Thilo Kehrer
3.) Aaron Cresswell
28.) Tomáš Souček (Fornals 78’)
41.) Declan Rice (c)
20.) Jarrod Bowen
11.) Lucas Paquetá
22.) Saïd Benrahma
9.) Michail Antonio (Mubama 87’)
West Ham United subs:
13.) Alphonse Aréola
21.) Angelo Ogbonna
2.) Ben Johnson
33.) Emerson Palmieri
32.) Conor Coventry
12.) Flynn Downes
8.) Pablo Fornals
10.) Manuel Lanzini
72.) Divin Mubama