After six long weeks, The Arsenal are back. And they returned in some style, coming from behind to defeat West Ham 3-1. Goals from Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, and Eddie Nketiah made a first half Said Benrahma penalty irrelevant. Arsenal now sit seven points clear at the top of the table ahead of Newcastle, although Manchester City are a game behind. Below are five Hits and two Misses from a marvelous restart to the season.
There is a Martin Odegaard apology form circulating online right now, and many people should be filling it out. The Norwegian has been consistently top class for Arsenal, and currently has produced the second-most key passes from open play in the Premier League this year. Against West Ham, he was masterful. The Arsenal captain finished with five key passes, two big chances created, two assists, 93% pass accuracy, and five ground duels won. He ran the show, deservedly being crowned the Man of the Match. Odegaard has been one of the best creative midfielders in the league for a little while now.
This match, his first in place of Gabriel Jesus, was a big one for Nketiah. Over the few weeks preceding West Ham’s visit, many Gooners expressed concern over the Englishman’s ability to fill in for Arsenal’s marquee signing. The likes of Joao Felix, Martinelli, and, remarkably, even Chuba Akpom were suggested as alternatives. Nketiah needed to show on Monday that he could do the job. As he spun Thilo Kehrer to slot home Arsenal’s third of the night, he demonstrated why Mikel Arteta has backed him publicly.
Playing in the final of the Euros and many minutes at the World Cup have made Saka, the nicest guy in any squad he’s in, an ice-cold, all-business player. After terrorizing Aaron Cresswell all night and impressively finishing a goal that turned out to be offside, Saka latched onto a driven ball from Odegaard and coolly slotted home to bring his side level. But instead of celebrating the goal, Saka picked the ball up and escorted it back to the center circle, ready to go again. He wanted to win. The 21-year-old, now tied with Jesus for most goal contributions for Arsenal this season, exemplifies the winning mentality that the team have now.
In his first match since his early departure from the England camp, White looked his usual reliable and confident self. He covered for William Saliba when the Frenchman had some uncharacteristically shaky moments in the first half. Going forward, he linked up with Saka well, helping create some 1-v-1 opportunities for the winger. He managed to get forward himself on occasion and fire in some decent crosses. White’s playmaking ability was also on display, as he probably should have earned an assist with a deft ball over the top that put Nketiah in on goal. He also impressively retained possession under pressure in the final third before playing the pre-assist for Nketiah’s goal.
Arsene Wenger’s return
This Arsenal team has been brought up in a London Colney and Emirates Stadium that has the image, words, and achievements of Arsene Wenger plastered all over them. They have been surrounded by a manager, sporting director, academy head, and even a handful of teammates that all played under Wenger. They have performed in the stadium that he built, turning it into a fortress. And yet, Wenger himself remained absent. But that changed on Monday. He showed up at the Emirates and watched the team he used to caretake top of the table on Boxing Day and playing brilliant, winning football with the mentality of champions. He witnessed a home crowd in full voice serenading him, an atmosphere brimming with belief. And though he undoubtedly must have felt a twinge of sadness that it was not directly because of him, he surely knows that he laid the foundation for this. For the players, his appearance will feel like summoning a mythical being to their shrine, an indication that they are on the right path, the ultimate positive reinforcement. Hopefully, it will inspire them to see out the season as they have begun it.
Saliba was immediately back in the side despite France having played in a World Cup final last week. Of course, the young center back only featured for 27 minutes in Qatar and therefore was quite fresh for the match. However, he needed to shake some rust off early on. Saliba gave away the penalty from which West Ham scored, sliding in and making contact with Jarrod Bowen before the Englishman went down in the box. He also seemed to refrain from his usual line-breaking passes, opting instead for safer layoffs to nearby teammates. Fortunately, he seemed to look more like his normal self as the match went on.
With Oleksandr Zinchenko having spent the World Cup break dealing with a muscular issue, Tierney was given the start on Boxing Day. In possession, he was helpful; he tucked into midfield alongside Thomas Partey very astutely. However, he tended to occupy the same spaces as Martinelli in the final third, occasionally forcing the Brazilian to improvise. Additionally, Tierney experienced a rather torrid time defending against Bowen, who routinely bypassed him or got crosses off into the box. When Zinchenko came on, regardless of game state, Arsenal felt much more in control.
Sham writes and podcasts regularly about The Arsenal, and hopes everyone who read this piece had a wonderful holiday season. He can be followed on Twitter @dopegooner.