AIn the end, Arsenal’s players didn’t celebrate much. But Mikel Arteta’s team might also be a little spooked because it was a truly strange afternoon, a haunted house in the form of a Premier League game.
Somehow they managed to take a 4-0 lead at half-time, but still looked like a team that could probably use a proper centre-forward (frankly there should have been seven or eight). On both sides, the home crowd disappeared, came back and then disappeared forever, leaving so much empty plastic in the stands that the London Stadium could be declared an environmental disaster area by the United Nations.
In the end, Arsenal’s energy remained a lasting memory – still underdogs in the title race, but again full of heat, light and a palpable sense of hunger. In contrast, West Ham’s role in this 6-0 home defeat can be examined quite quickly. Basically they had none.
It will be tempting to describe West Ham’s performance as pathetic, terrible, lackadaisical, an abdication of professional responsibility, because it was all of those things. But this also serves to dignify it with a form and a number of noticeable defects. Instead it was something else, an absence, a West Ham-shaped hole.
There were jerseys, colors, figures that were only half glimpsed on the sidelines, unplayed football in front of an audience that was not present. At times you half expected a group of excited van drivers to march up and start dragging the West Ham players off the pitch, in the mistaken belief that this was some sort of protest against the unnecessary expenditure of energy, a first blow to the Just Stop football movement.
It was a terrible spectacle for David Moyes, even more so for a manager whose contract is up for renewal, who looked completely stricken for most of the game and rose from his dugout to stroll down the touchline. Playing on the counterattack, allowing the opponent to have the ball, all of this can be done with energy, menace and aggression.
On the other hand, you can do it that way too, and West Ham’s non-appearance will be subjected to its own extended autopsy this week. The happier story here was Arsenal’s energy and grit, a team that for now looks genuinely refreshed and recharged after a break in training in the winter sun.
Before Dubai, Arsenal had suffered three consecutive defeats and scored five goals out of seven. After the break the balance stood at four wins in a row and 16 goals scored. Bukayo Saka has four goals and one assist in these four games. He looks like Saka again, the same moves, the same twists and turns, but now executed with precision and bite and speed. Knowing what he’s going to do is one thing. Stopping it is another matter.
Arsenal were again excellent from set pieces, with Declan Rice scoring two goals from his forays, the first of the afternoon scored by William Saliba. At this point, the green and yellow jerseys gathered in droves at the corner flag to the commune, the day already beginning to break. And yes, it’s also a good time to talk about these celebrations and the mood of this team and what they are trying to achieve this season, two points off the top but underdogs still in the race. The celebrations are easily misunderstood, but they are also part of it.
In old-fashioned terms, celebrating means showing weakness, presumption and complacency. Emotions must be channeled. The fear of hysteria or “enthusiasm” lurks. In Victorian England there was a fashion for holding up a so-called orange board while eating fruit in polite company, for fear that the sights and sounds of overly sensual juice consumption would cause society to collapse and the hierarchy to falter. Perhaps Arsenal could introduce a celebratory board for their players to pass around after the game and put a stop to such unmanly displays of weakness.
In reality, there is logic here. Why do Arsenal celebrate so intensely? A better question is: How does this team manage to create a narrative in which they could actually win the league? Take a look at the other two teams in this race. Arsenal must finish ahead of Manchester City, who are in search of greatness, who have an unparalleled advantage in Erling Haaland and who now have a chance of the ultimate. Liverpool has its own narrative. Late-stage Klopp energy, final things, home delirium. This too feels like a story, dots to connect, a plausible champion energy.
Why should Arsenal finish earlier? What’s the story here, what tool will they use to derail these competing forces? The answer is energy, will and youth. There are a lot of wonderfully functioning parts here, but other teams also have strengths and Arsenal are still a bit more callous.
So they have to make noise, be disruptive, be as relentless as they were against Liverpool, be hungrier, wilder and more connected than you. This is the most obvious version of how they win a league now. That’s also why Arsenal will celebrate and try to create their own inner story, to be wilder and more intense.
It’s a tactic, a mood, an attempt to write a success story. At times it feels a little awkward and forced, like Kendall Roy striding into the takeover room without a tie and screaming, “Let’s get this party started.” It might end up coming undone. But here they reproduced the same collective energy on the pitch, reducing West Ham to a team playing a half-forgotten version of their own game.