It was anything but vintage, more stumbling than elegant, but finally Arsenal broke down a gutsy and resilient West Ham as substitute Eddie Nketiah snatched a 2-1 victory in the dying stages at the Emirates.
This was by no means the buoyant Arsenal of late, outfought in large periods by David Moyes’ side after Michail Antonio cancelled out Alexandre Lacazette’s opener. But, yet, again, they delved into a new layer of strength built by Mikel Arteta to continue their perfect start to the season.
For a vastly improved West Ham, it was another cruel blow on a night where they called upon every ounce of fight and deserved more, only to fall short just as the finish line had come into view.
For all the gloom surrounding the Hammers coming into the fixture, that heavy – and largely self-inflicted – air of discontent and defensive vacuum, it was they who started spritely. Antonio’s barreling pace immediately made in-roads and Angelo Ogbonna’s close-range header caused an early scare before Jarrod Bowen fell a little weakly inside the box. In contrast, Arsenal creaked badly off-beat, bereft of their recent rhythm, and were often overrun and certainly out-hustled.
But hope can be the ficklest of currencies, and the moment West Ham’s discipline dissolved, Arsenal exploited their defence emphatically. Bukayo Saka slid through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who timed his run brilliantly, sprinted away from a flat-footed back line and chipped the ball across the face of goal, where Lacazette could power a header into the roof of the net. Immediately Arsenal settled, and in one swift stroke, the curtain was brought down on West Ham’s 25 minutes of blissful relief.
But when it might have been easier to do so, West Ham did not disintegrate. Declan Rice recovered the ball and reset the tempo brilliantly and, for what creative spark they do lack – an absence only made more distinct by the sale of Grady Diangana – there was a real sense of fight to Moyes’ team. Against Newcastle on the opening weekend, they succumbed to defeat with a heavy whimper. Here, instead of lying down, they began swinging.
An appeal for handball against Gabriel was waved away before, on the brink of half-time, Willian’s pass was cut out and West Ham, suddenly unshackled, burst forwards. Tomas Soucek galloped into space, laid the ball off for Ryan Fredericks on the overlap, and Antonio stretched and diverted the cross into the far corner. It was the exact type of incisive and clinical move, spearheaded by Antonio’s dynamism up front, that the east London side have so often been accused of missing.
Arsenal began to pour on pressure right from the whistle, searching for holes in West Ham’s defence as Aubameyang continued to cut inside. But West Ham still bared their teeth on the counter-attack and almost struck again in a mirror image to their equaliser: Arthur Masuaku breaking down the left-flank this time and crossing to Antonio, only for his shot to ricochet off Gabriel and safely into Bernd Leno’s arms. Minutes later, Bowen could only slash at thin air after the ball fell kindly to him on the edge of the box.
Their best chance, though, came seconds after a nasty clash of heads between Tomas Soucek and Granit Xhaka, the former springing up and crossing to Antonio, whose header clattered against the crossbar before Leno provoked panic by spilling the follow-up.
Arsenal reeled and rattled as Arteta cut an increasingly tetchy figure on the touchline. The introduction of Nicolas Pepe in place of Willian brought a sharper threat, but those slick patterns of play that have started to become familiar became flustered and influent.
Finally, though, from nothing, Arsenal found their decisive edge.
Saka lifted a deft ball over the top to Dani Ceballos, who cut inside untracked and calmly set up Nketiah to tap in the winner. It wasn’t necessarily deserved, but on the type of night when the Arsenal of old were so accustomed to crumbling, they dug deep once again, while Moyes was left despondent, hurling a water bottle onto the floor.
His side gave their all, and that will only make this defeat more painful.