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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Arsenal hit top form in title race with evisceration of West Ham


LONDON — Redemption is rarely more emphatic than this. It is a familiar trope of Mikel Arteta’s tenure as Arsenal manager to use past disappointments to fuel future successes, and Sunday’s stunning 6-0 win at West Ham United in the Premier League was a devastating statement of how effective that tool can be.

The Hammers came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in the corresponding fixture last season, as Bukayo Saka missed a penalty and Arsenal’s title challenge began to fall apart. David Moyes’ side also won this season’s reverse fixture in December and knocked the Gunners out of this year’s Carabao Cup to extend a series of setbacks that made this encounter look even trickier on paper, especially coming at the end of a weekend in which Liverpool and Manchester City recorded routine victories.

Arteta revealed his players had discussed a similarly chequered record at Nottingham Forest prior to securing a 2-1 win at the City Ground last month. They found similar inspiration once more at the London Stadium, no doubt triggered further by Declan Rice returning to his former club to a mixed reception for the third time.

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So what did Arteta say to them before kickoff here? “Time to beat West Ham,” he said postmatch. “We all knew it. We all had it in our tummies. We knew that it was going to be a really tough match and we had to do certain things in both boxes better than in the previous match and we did that today.

“It’s great to make [club] history especially the way we have done it. We’re in a good moment and when you have good moments you have to build and maintain the momentum. The team from the beginning looked really sharp. We had to put right the last two results against them and that was a good motivation for the boys.”

If this was a history test, they passed with flying colours. William Saliba, Gabriel, Saka — from the spot, of course — and Leandro Trossard put them up 4-0 at the break. Warnings from the past were everywhere — the last time Arsenal led by that scoreline at the break was in February 2011 at Newcastle, when they collapsed to draw 4-4. Not this time. Saka struck again before Rice completed his own personal restorative storyline with a brilliant 25-yard strike which he chose not to celebrate out of respect for his old team.

Not that there were many home fans left to appreciate that show of humility. Thousands poured out at half-time not to return, such was Arsenal’s superiority with Rice showcasing just how well he has adapted following his £105 million move across London. That fee looks cheap on days like this.

The 25-year-old was acquired to bring greater authority to Arsenal’s midfield but in addition to providing vital late goal-scoring contributions — think Chelsea, Manchester United and Luton Town — he has now evolved into something of a set-piece specialist. Rice started taking corners in the 5-0 win over Crystal Palace last month and here he laid on goals for both centre-backs, delivering the 32nd-minute corner which Saliba converted and the 44th-minute free kick nodded in by Gabriel.

“I’m really happy with [Rice] because I know it was an emotional and special day for him because he loves West Ham so much,” Arteta said. “Today he had to focus on the task and what he had to deliver.

“Set pieces were one of those because when we have certain players on the field because he can threaten from outside the box more than he does inside the box and then I was really pleased to see the class of the crowd to give him the respect he deserves.”

Arteta added: “[Rice’s set-piece ability] is something that we knew and we could imagine. It depends as well on who plays in the team and the height, presence and physicality we have in the box to make the right decision. But he certainly has the delivery. He used to do it at West Ham here, he’s done it in the national team and it’s another thing that we can add to his game.”

This Arsenal team may still operate in the shadows of Liverpool and City but they are determined to write their own history. Several players did here: this was the first time Rice has provided three goal contributions in one game. Saka became the youngest Arsenal player to reach 50 goals for the club since 1978, Trossard’s fine strike was Arsenal’s 8,000th league goal, and Arsenal recorded both their biggest away victory in the Premier League and West Ham’s joint-heaviest league defeat all in the space of one stunning 90 minutes.

“We are maintaining and building some momentum now and the performances, they have been really strong as well as the results and we need to maintain that because we are not the only ones,” Arteta said.

“We know the standards and the level we are facing and we need to be at this level if we have any chance to be successful.”

Liverpool still have a two-point lead, and City have a game in hand. But Arsenal have a hunger driven by their recent history that is keeping them firmly in the conversation.

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