Arsenal find a way to win in Gabriel Jesus’ absence as new front-three excel in West Ham comeback triumph
he headlines write themselves: about how Arsenal, this Christmas, found a way to get by without Jesus.
Heading into the World Cup break, the sceptics were running out of answers as to why the Gunners might not be able to sustain their unexpected early season title challenge, only for the tournament to throw up a genuine one in the shape of the injury that will keep Gabriel Jesus sidelined until the spring.
But just 90 minutes into the Premier League’s resumption, there is reason to think Mikel Arteta’s side might just have it in them to overcome that one, too, after a scintillating attacking performance, orchestrated by the magnificent Martin Odegaard, saw the Gunners fight back from a goal down to beat West Ham 3-1 and go seven points clear at the top.
Goals from the front-three of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and, perhaps most importantly, Jesus stand-in Eddie Nketiah saw Arteta’s men come roaring back after Said Benrahma had converted from the spot to give the Hammers a scarcely deserved half-time lead.
In truth, replacing Jesus’ goals was never likely to be the most testing aspect of the forward’s absence, given he had scored just five of them this season and none since October 1.
Instead, it is the unique tenacity to Jesus’ play that has so marked him out from his recent predecessors, but Arsenal’s forwards as a collective embodied it here, most notably when Saka outmuscled England teammate Declan Rice to start a move finished by Martinelli, who had been kicked from pillar to post early on but would not go away.
Then there was the question of whether the rest of the pieces might fit so neatly around Nketiah, given the extent to which Jesus’ summer of arrival from Manchester City had seemed the completion of an offensive jigsaw. The early signs were encouraging: after a first-half in which they dominated possession but found the visitors’ low-block nigh-on impassable, Arsenal clicked after the break with Odegaard instrumental in creating two of the goals, even if one came with a fortuitous dragged shot that turned into the kind of disguised pass he had spent much of the opening 45 minutes trying to conjure.
Saka and Martinelli, both more prolific than Jesus to this point of the campaign anyway, took their goals well and Nketiah the best of the lot, rolling Thilo Kehrer and firing across goal at the end of some fine team play.
Tougher tests of this tweaked attack lie ahead (Newcastle come here next week) and Jesus’ hold-up and link play will surely be missed against the best opposition and more physically dominant centre-halves.
But given Arsenal, of any team, had most to surrender in terms of momentum heading into the break, then lost their transformative summer signing during it, this was an ideal restart.
Saliba wobble highlights post-World Cup pattern
Much has been written and discussed about the impact a mid-season World Cup may have on overworked stars but the likelihood is that the consequences on that score will not become clear until later in the season.
More immediately, as suggested by Pep Guardiola, it may be those who have not been playing at full tilt that struggle to hit top form immediately after this unique resumption.
The Manchester City boss was referring to the few players in his squad not called up to Qatar but Arsenal have several in their squad who did travel to the tournament but hardly played, if at all.
They include William Saliba, who made just one group stage substitute appearance in France’s run to the final and otherwise spent a month warming the bench for Didier Deschamps’ side.
Back in the starting XI eight days on from that final, the centre-back, usually so assured, showed uncharacteristic signs of hesitancy in his defending and gave away the penalty for West Ham’s opener while trying to recover against Jarrod Bowen.
Given the way the way the 21-year-old has settled into Premier League football this term, it would be a surprised were he not quickly back up to full speed but the trend – if it proves to be one – will be interesting to follow.
Paqueta trouble for Hammers
When West Ham made Lucas Paqueta their club record signing this summer, it was with the No10 role in mind but the Brazilian excelled at the World Cup in Qatar in a deeper role for his country and there have been increasing calls for David Moyes to experiment with his deployment.
A trip to the League leaders would hardly have been ideal testing ground, but the former Lyon midfielder had little influence on the game from higher up the pitch and with Tomas Soucek hardly excelling alongside Rice, a tinker for Friday’s home game against Brentford – a must-win for hopes of a post-World Cup upturn – must be tempting.