Eddie Nketiah showed against West Ham he’s good enough for Arsenal, who again showed why they’re good enough to go all the way this season.
It was, in the end, just about the perfect Boxing Day evening for Arsenal.
As Liverpool can wearily attest, putting yourself in a title race against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City is an exhausting business. A marathon-length sprint in rarefied air with minimal margin for error.
It means it’s not even enough to just win games – that becomes pretty much mandatory in almost all situations every single week and certainly in home games against relegation-threatened teams playing gloomy football drearily under David Moyes at his least bullish. As well as winning all the games, you must also win all the games in a manner that suggests you will go on winning all the games.
Against a West Ham side who were initially obdurate, then opportunistic, and eventually overwhelmed, Arsenal did precisely that. It would be wrong to say as many will that this was the performance of title winners. Again, Liverpool will attest that normal conventions don’t apply in a race against City. But it was absolutely the performance of contenders. It was absolutely the performance of a team that could win the title.
Even in the first half, one that ended with Arsenal a goal down and not at their very best, it was still fine. They were still playing fine. They were still the better side despite having to shake off that post-World Cup rust. Few teams had more reason to resent that break than Arsenal given the flow they’d found in the first part of the season but it didn’t take long for it to return.
The first half was one of several minor frustrations at the final pass not quite coming off and one major frustration at William Saliba’s uncharacteristically careless and unnecessary lunge at Jarrod Bowen that gave West Ham the chance from the penalty spot.
But all the elements were in place, it just hadn’t quite come together. Arsenal showed they have one necessary title-tilt quality: being quite good even when being by their own standards a bit shit.
And then in the second half they were just excellent. Michail Antonio had one half-chance early in the second period to make it 2-0 and interesting. He failed, and the game was promptly wrenched from the Hammers with lightning speed.
So clever was Martin Odegaard’s general string-pulling all afternoon that one could almost be tempted to make a case that the shanked shot turned pinpoint assist for Bukayo Saka’s equaliser was intentional. Almost. It obviously wasn’t, but the touch and finish from Saka were sublime and there’s always something thoroughly enjoyable about a player being two yards onside but ending up in such an absurdly free position that even he feels compelled to just glance at the linesman and make sure he wasn’t imagining things.
Fabianski will be disappointed by the second goal, snuck inside his near post by Gabriel Martinelli. The timing of it so soon after the equaliser said so much about these two sides and it did already feel like it was a matter of time once the scores had been levelled.
But the least important goal of the day may prove the most significant in the months ahead. The way Eddie Nketiah rolled his defender and fired across Fabianski to make it 3-1 was inevitably reminiscent of a Certain Previous Arsenal Number 14 – especially as he was sat watching in the Amazon Prime studio – and could prove so important to Arsenal over the weeks ahead.
Nketiah has a huge opportunity over the next two or three months with Gabriel Jesus sidelined, but he must first prove himself worthy to stop Arsenal feeling the need to go striker shopping next month. That doesn’t have to mean goals, goals, goals but goals, goals, goals will certainly help.
He was decent this evening but there’s no doubt the goal shifts the needle his way more powerfully than tidy build-up play and nice touches around the box would have done. Especially a goal so beautifully worked and finished. It wasn’t just a great Nketiah goal, it was a great Arsenal goal; the precise kind of intricate goal this side is built around scoring. If Nketiah can do this on the regular, then Arsenal save a January headache and a shitload of cash that can be better used elsewhere.
But overall what grabbed you was the sense of calm. There was no panic at 1-0 down, because there was belief rather than hope that this unnatural order of things would be overturned. There was no chance of the crowd’s worries passing to the players because the crowd appeared to have few worries. There was certainty among the Emirates faithful that the second half would be better and have different outcomes, a certainty born not of arrogance but of repeated and mounting supporting evidence over a run going back into last season.
It might well be that City end up winning the title because it’s what they do. But it increasingly looks like City will have to go out and win it, because Arsenal don’t look like they have any intention of losing it.