Arsenal comfortably handled West Ham United 3-1 at the Emirates to extend their lead at the top of the table. The Gunners looked a bit rusty and lacked a cutting edge in the first half and went into halftime down a goal. But they found their groove in the second, putting three past West Ham in the opening 25 minutes to take complete control of the contest. I’m sure that Arsene Wenger, in attendance at the Emirates for the first time since leaving the club in 2018, enjoyed the performance.
Arsenal thought they had the opening goal inside five minutes when Martin Ødegaard, Bukayo Saka, and Eddie Nketiah combined on a lovely passing sequence, but the goal was immediately ruled out by the linesman’s flag. It looked well onside, but Ødegaard’s pass had clipped off the back of Saka’s heel on the way to Nketiah. The striker had started the move onside but was put offside by the intervening touch. It was desperately unlucky — Saka wasn’t trying to play the ball, it just hit his foot on the way through. And the reason the ball clipped an off-balance Saka? Aaron Cresswell had pulled his shirt as he ran past him.
But it was West Ham who struck first from the penalty spot through Said Benrahma. Gabriel won a header but put it right to the visitors. William Saliba misjudged the ensuing ball forward — he probably could have cut it out, but backed off. It led to Jarrod Bowen dribbling into the box and getting the slightest of touches from a sliding Saliba. Bowen stayed on his feet for a step or two, then fell over trying to shoot. Michael Oliver decided it was a penalty, and once it was given, it was never getting overturned. But it was an incredibly soft call, one that definitely isn’t always made — think back to Bukayo Saka getting contacted in the box and getting booked for diving instead of getting the penalty. I guess we’ve totally thrown the “the contact needs to be sufficient enough to merit the reaction” standard out the window.
Arsenal thought they had a penalty of their own right before halftime, but it was correctly overturned by VAR. An Ødegaard shot looked to have hit Aaron Cresswell in the hand, but replay showed the ball clearly hitting only his head.
The Gunners got their well-deserved equalizer shortly after halftime. Martin Ødegaard hit what looked like a scuffed shot (but we’ll generously call it a pass) that put Bukayo Saka in, who calmly slipped it past a helpless Lukasz Fabiański. The goal was made in part by Granit Xhaka dragging Vladimir Coufal well out of position behind the West Ham defensive line, which gave Saka acres of space to stay onside.
Arsenal took the lead five minutes later. They worked the ball from right to left to find Granit Xhaka on the edge of the box. He passed down to Martinelli cutting into the box, who shifted it from his right foot to his left and absolutely ripped a shot to the near post past Fabianski. The goal came in part because Vladimir Coufal, who was correctly booked for a vicious challenge in the first half, had to back off the Arsenal attacker. He couldn’t risk giving away a penalty and getting sent off. That’s why it’s so important that referees get cautions right throughout a match — a yellow card in the first half helped lead to a goal in the second.
And ten minutes after that, Eddie Nketiah made it three. Ben White casually danced around Benrahma to start the move. Martin Ødegaard found Nketiah with a one-touch redirection of White’s pass, and the striker did the rest. He rolled Thilo Kehrer, leaving the defender bamboozled and grasped at thin air, and fired it into the far corner. Nketiah’s turn-and-finish was a striker’s goal if I’ve ever seen one, a lovely piece of play for his 11th goal in 11 appearances in all competitions.
There’s little question as to who was the man of the match: Martin Ødegaard. The club captain had one of his best performances in an Arsenal shirt, notching two assists and controlling the middle of the park all match, including putting in a shift in the defensive third. Ødegaard comfortably outplayed Declan Rice, who looked as if he had been tasked with keeping a close eye on the Norwegian.
Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli get an honorable mention. They terrorized the West Ham flanks all night. Arsenal need the pair in top form during Gabriel Jesus’ extended absence, and tonight was an excellent start. Ben White was quite good on the evening, which has long since become a habit for him. He’s quietly been the best right back in the Premier League this season.
Eddie Nketiah played well, too. He made a few questionable decisions in and around the box in the first half but more than made up for it with his lovely goal in the second. And you’ll never be able to question his workrate — Nketiah is always making runs when Arsenal have the ball and harrying defenders when they don’t.
The Gunners are next in action on December 31st when they travel to the south coast to take on Brighton, who knocked them out of the Carabao Cup in early November. Hopefully the first choice side fare better.