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Monday, April 22, 2024

Arsenal are transformed and now hold an advantage in the Premier League title race

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There was a time when the scoreline indelibly associated with Arsenal was 1-0. Not now, and if there were points earlier in the season when Mikel Arteta seemed to be paying tribute to George Graham’s low-risk, low-scoring side, now it is more likely to be 5-0 to the Arsenal. Or, in this case, a second 6-0 away win in a month.

Arteta’s Arsenal are the roundheads who have reinvented themselves as cavaliers. There are times when title-chasing teams can find the goals dry up in the run-in. But Arsenal have grown more expansive, more exciting, more ebullient. They became the first team in Premier League history to score five or more times in three consecutive away matches and the division’s top scorers. And if they were aided by the ineptitude of Sheffield United, who plummeted to a historic low by conceding at least five goals for the fourth successive home game, this was a stunning demonstration of attacking strength.

Arsenal made a spectacular start: three goals to the good after 15 minutes, four ahead after 25, five in front after 38, they raised the question of whether the Premier League record of 9-0 might fall. It did not but Arsenal were irresistible when they needed to be. They have scored 31 in their last seven league games, winning each. If goal difference is the determining factor in the title race, it is very much advantage Arsenal now.

All that without a specialist striker. It was a triumph of Arteta’s ethos, of a belief that goals can come from anywhere when they attack with such brilliance. Now Kai Havertz has scored in three successive league games. Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, Declan Rice and Ben White joined him in finding the net, the latter strikes seen by decreasing numbers of home fans.

Stands were emptying long before half-time. Fans were not the only departures. There was the rarity of a tactical substitution in the 16th minute, Oliver Norwood being replaced by Ben Osborn. A few of Norwood’s teammates may have wished their number was up, too: Arsenal scythed through the Blades with embarrassing ease and the confidence of a team who knew they would be rampant.

It amounted to another embarrassing day for a proud club who overachieved in winning promotion last season, who promptly lost their two best players and who could be forgiven for wishing this season would end now. Or, better still, several weeks ago. They navigated this game without teammates fighting or anyone eating a sandwich in Chris Wilder’s presence but the positives ended there. Now United could be on course for an unwanted century; they last conceded 100 league goals in a campaign in 1933-34.

United set a historic low

(Getty Images)

At least they will not have to face Arsenal on their return to the Championship. Stiffer tests await the Gunners – by default, in the sense this could not have been any easier – but Arteta’s side are flying. Individually and collectively, they were outstanding.

Perhaps Bukayo Saka was the pick of the bunch in the first half; even as his scoring run ended, he felt unstoppable. Yet such was the competition from Rice, who has rarely looked so potent as an attacking midfielder; Martinelli, who was electric; Havertz, who was elusive; and Odegaard, who was elegantly influential.

Arteta took mercy on the Blades at the break, substituting Saka. It removed some of the sting from his side but White still pinged in the 10,000th goal in Arsenal’s history. Then he exited, with Martinelli hobbling off, and Jorginho making way so Thomas Partey could return after four months out. Arsenal declared their innings.

Martinelli hobbling off was the only mark on Arsenal’s night

(Getty Images)

It was game over long before then, with Arsenal’s intent signalled from the first whistle. In the opening minute, Saka hit the bar and Martinelli had a shot cleared off the line by Jack Robinson.

It rendered it a surprise that United held out for four minutes before Odegaard tucked in a shot from Rice’s low centre. Arsenal then benefitted from a third own goal in two games when Jayden Bogle contrived to meet Saka’s cross with a backheeled flick into his own net. It was a comically good finish.

Others were more deliberate. Martinelli exchanged passes with the overlapping Jakub Kiwior and finished adeptly. The Brazilian Martinelli dispossessed Anel Ahmedhodzic, who threw him to the ground in frustration, and Havertz surged through to score. Next, Saka laid the ball back for the raiding Rice to angle in a shot.

All before half-time. And if they faced weaker opponents than their rivals, Arsenal may note it took Liverpool 99 minutes to find a lead against Nottingham Forest, Manchester City 80 to get ahead in the Manchester derby. Arsenal had victory sealed within a quarter of an hour. The imperious ease of it may aid them in the next three months. But even if not, it was a statement of how a team who had seemed to be trying to grind their way to glory have transformed themselves into entertainers.

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