“One Arsène Wenger” was the chant ringing around the Emirates. Up in the directors’ box, the old master responded with a wave. Gabriel Martinelli had just put Arsenal in front, some of the football was reminiscent of their glory years and, on his first visit since departing emotionally in 2018, the architect of those times would have been forgiven a sense that the good old days were coming back .
Perhaps they really are. Although this was ultimately a comfortable victory for the leaders it felt significant: plenty of watching eyes were wondering whether six weeks off might have checked any title pretensions in their stride. West Ham were the kind of awkward opponents who could test that idea but, like virtually everyone who crossed Arsenal’s path between August and November, they were thoroughly outplayed.
It took time for that to show itself in the scoreline and Arsenal suffered the inconvenience of going behind when, before the half-hour, Saïd Benrahma converted a penalty. They had responded superbly to setbacks earlier in the campaign but here was an examination, so soon after the league’s restart, of whether they remembered how to comport themselves with the air of potential champions. In front of Wenger, they passed it.
“He picked the right moment, a really special day,” said a beaming Mikel Arteta of his old boss’s presence. “Boxing Day is a beautiful day to play football and I think the performance was at the level he deserved. Hopefully he liked it.
There will be no concerns on that score. Arsenal were irresistible after the interval and danced to the tune of Martin Ødegaard, who was on song from the first whistle and produced a lesson in the playmaker’s art. Arteta was keen to highlight his captain’s work off the ball but his two assists, even if the first looked lucky, produced more instant gratification. It was, at the risk of laboring a point, an individual display fit for the height of Wenger’s era.
Saka was not far short of Ødegaard’s level and certainly did not resemble a player wallowing in the disappointment of England’s World Cup exit. The pair had combined to near-decisive effect twice before the opener, Saka seeing an early effort disallowed for offside before heading down for his colleague to turn just wide, and even though Arsenal found themselves bashing against a brick wall before the interval there was always the sense their ingenuity would bear fruit.
It did in strange fashion when Ødegaard, apparently attempting to shoot from 30 yards, dragged his effort straight into the feet of an unmarked Saka. There was time and space but the situation still required an ice-cool finish, which was duly provided. A more generous interpretation would be that Ødegaard fizzed his teammate a firm, fully meant pass that demanded putting away; he is capable of it but, whatever the reality, everyone could agree Arsenal were off and running.
“Maybe they needed a bit of good fortune to get them up,” said a crestfallen David Moyes, whose team had shown glimpses of their redoubtable best before crumbling to a fourth straight defeat. If so, Arsenal seized it and by the 58th minute they were ahead through the goal that so delighted Wenger.
It was a precis of everything good about the modern-day team, a hungry Saka winning his tussle with Declan Rice before Ødegaard took over and, via Granit Xhaka, Martinelli was found on the left of the box. A twist outside, a low finish inside the near post and, while Moyes had a point in suggesting Lukasz Fabianski should have done better, from the victors’ point of view it was a triumph of execution.
Arteta was delighted that the third came from Nketiah, who has big shoes to fill in the absence of Gabriel Jesus but offered a convincing answer to any critics here. Nketiah rolled Thilo Kehrer and drilled across Fabianski after another sweet move that saw Ben White slickly evade Benrahma before Ødegaard played the final pass. Nketiah’s game has improved dramatically over the last 12 months and there was certainly no drop-off in Arsenal’s attacking intensity. “If he had any doubts, hopefully this can give him more confidence in what he’s doing,” Arteta said.
West Ham looked short on that and must regret the moment when, under a minute into the second half, Michail Antonio escaped but shot at Aaron Ramsdale. They had something to hang on to after William Saliba felled Jarrod Bowen, Benrahma doing the rest, but sat 16th and are in a pickle. “We got soft in the second half,” said Moyes, who might have thought his luck was in when VAR correctly overturned a spot-kick awarded for handball against Aaron Cresswell as half-time loomed.
This was Arsenal’s night and, no doubt about it, Wenger’s too. “Hopefully, walking through the building, he’s going to feel everything that everybody thinks of him, the legacy he left here,” Arteta said. His team may be about to build on it.