LONDON — Tens, tens, tens across the board. Not only the player ratings Mikel Arteta must have been handing out in the dressing room post-match but how it must have felt for West Ham as they tried and failed to quell the devastating interplay that propelled Arsenal to their heaviest win of the season, 6-0 at the London Stadium.
Gabriel and William Saliba swelled their set piece scoring numbers in a sensational first half, sending West Ham supporters scurrying for Stratford in time for the sort of retail therapy they will really need after the joint-biggest home defeat in their history. Those that left at 4-0 down might well have felt vindicated at missing a second half that ended with Declan Rice, the man who led them to European glory last year, inflicting even more pain on his former manager David Moyes.
For Arsenal, this was ecstasy. As devastating as they were on dead balls again it was from open play that this side was at its most devastating. That has not always been the case for Arteta’s men this season. On occasion, perhaps not as frequently as skeptics might imagine, they have felt a little clunky in breaking down low blocks. Give it to one of the wide tyros, trust them to make something with two or more defenders on them and go from there.
There was to be none of that on Sunday. Arsenal’s threat came from the left, the right and everywhere in between. Their front five was more fluid and impudent than it has been at any stage in Arteta’s reign. It had seemed for a while that the one improvement within management’s power that could make them champions — what can be done if Manchester City have a run in them like last season’s? — was to make the attack as sparky as the defense is obdurate. Mission accomplished.
Arteta has frequently dallied with dual number 10s since the start of last season. Such an approach is only natural with Gabriel Jesus, most at ease coming towards the ball, but even he tended to drift into wide pockets rather than look to dominate the area immediately in front of the box. In Jesus’ absence against Liverpool last week Kai Havertz seemed like he was going to function as more of a target man and on occasion he did. What really befuddled Jurgen Klopp’s defense, however, was when he vacated the frontline into deeper roles, the sort from which he got the run that led to the Gunners’ opener.
If Liverpool were confused, Moyes’ men were bewitched, bothered, bewildered, bamboozled. They’d come up with more adjectives but their heads are still spinning. Adding Leandro Trossard in place of Jorginho, placing the Belgian alongside Havertz as the nominal center forwards who were so rarely in the No.9’s spots, worked a treat.
“It’s something very different,” Arteta told CBS Sports. “The way I had the game in my head, and the spaces that they leave I thought Leo with Kai in those positions could hurt them the most. Something else is the execution. Credit to them because they’ve done really well.”
They would drop deep, drift wide, move close to each other and create separation, all to drag West Ham’s back nine across the field. None of that stopped them getting in the box. That was the joy of Arsenal’s movement on Sunday, after an early period where they seemed to have gummed themselves up in central areas, they got all the joy of dominating midfield without any of the penalty area drawbacks. Much of the credit for that has to go to Trossard, whose last minute crashes into the box might well have brought a goal before William Saliba flicked Declan Rice’s corner home in the 32nd minute.
Even against the West Ham tall boys, these set piece masters are delivering routines that their opponents cannot depend. Certainly, it helps when Ben White is setting the most robust of picks on Alphonse Areola. Arsenal’s screen-setting is undoubtedly within the rules and they are executing in outstanding fashion but the sport may one day find itself asking whether Nicolas Jover’s approach is the direction it wants the game to head in.
Trossard ducked and dived in pursuit of openings, no one knew who was supposed to be picking him up. Someone really ought to have when he sprayed a pass from inside his own half over Nayef Aguerd, right into the stride of Saka. Areola did well to get a glove on Arsenal’s No.7, felling him for a penalty that Saka converted, banishing memories of the miss here last season that might have been the moment the title slipped away.
“At his age, the position and consistency normally don’t go in the same line,” said Arteta. “He’s proving everybody wrong that he can do it. I had doubts whether he was going to take the penalty or not because of what happened. It shows you as well how mature he is and how determined he is to go to the next level.”
There was to be no frittering away of two-goal leads this time out. For starters, West Ham rarely, if ever, looked like they had the ability to break the Arsenal lines and launch Jarrod Bowen on his counters. Anyway, the patterns weaved by the visitors were so intricate that when West Ham got the ball back they scarcely seemed to know where they were.
After the second, the mood really took Arsenal. That tandem could become a triumvirate at will. From the outset, there was fluidity as to who was at the top of the XI. Without the ball, Martin Odegaard steps forward to conduct the press, Havertz moving deeper to offer physicality alongside Rice. Early on it was the captain’s duty to provide a possession platform alongside Rice but before too long he was entering the front five, his full range of passing on display. No one in Europe’s top five leagues can match his open-play chance creation, not even Saka, third in those particular rankings.
As Bob Odenkirk might put it, triples is best, and the Trossard, Havertz, Odegaard chimera turned Arsenal into the deadliest of beasts. Trossard’s goal typified was their zenith. Twice Havertz was first to loose balls and on the second occasion, he managed to poke the ball to Odegaard in space. Given the time to take a touch and look up, he drove forward and drew Aguerd out of the backline. In that moment he needed only to flick the ball to his left and Trossard, who stepped inside Kurt Zouma and curled the ball into the far post.
All this excellence only became more remarkable considering how many potentially foundational pieces of Arsenal’s build-up had been taken out. Jorginho had excelled seven days earlier but his ongoing foot issue had flared up once more. Oleksandr Zinchenko would have loved conducting this game from deep but he was unavailable, as was Gabriel Jesus, whose knee issue has run beyond the “days” Arteta initially put it at. No Zinchenko meant more than just a change at left back. White inverted from the right, forcing the likes of Saliba and Gabriel to shift across from their natural roles. After a while, you wouldn’t have known it but this was a reminder that there are further gears for Arsenal to grind towards.
Not that West Ham ever reached them. The Gunners’ excellence should not shroud how diabolically the hosts responded to a two-goal deficit.
“It was disappointing the way we fell apart,” said Moyes, faltering as he mulled how brutally to assess his players.
He could have gone plenty firmer. By the second half, basic non-negotiables for any professional were nowhere to be seen. Odegaard might have teed up Saka for his second, Arsenal’s fifth, with a precise through ball but it should have taken more than the Norwegian shifting the ball from his left foot to his right to take James Ward-Prowse out of the game.
Even with Arsenal well out of sight, there was time for one more gut punch to those home fans who had not made the early journey home, Rice delivering perhaps his best goal at this ground with a bending 30-yarder. He seemed as pained as anyone in the crowd that his homecoming should have ended in this fashion. His new supporters, though, will not soon forget the brilliance that culminated with Rice’s stunner.