Sunday, May 19, 2024

Arsenal’s title chase continues as Declan Rice and Kai Havertz prove their worth in Manchester City chase

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LONDON — Another year, another 98th minute thunderbolt to send the Emirates Stadium into raptures. This time, however, it was not a miracle comeback that Arsenal were celebrating, but a consummate display that means they are going nowhere as the title race turns into the finishing straight.

No need, this time, for the heroics of Reiss Nelson. Mikel Arteta and Edu saw to that this summer with a recruitment spree that increasingly bears the signs of a masterstroke. Declan Rice, Kai Havertz and, with a little helping hand from VAR Peter Bankes, David Raya ensured that Bournemouth did not get anywhere near as close to snaring a point as they had on their last visit to N5. What looked to be the toughest assignment left on their fixture list — and arguably proved to be on occasions in the second half — was negotiated with a sophistication and muscularity that had long since deserted Arsenal at this stage last season.

At the vanguard of that performance were Havertz and Rice. The former won the contentious penalty that allowed Bukayo Saka to translate “the best first half of the season” into a one goal lead. The latter provided the assist for the second, and powered in the third that has Arsenal four points clear of Manchester City. Increasingly, those two have the look of exemplars for what Arteta has always wanted this team to be, a side that will not just outplay you, but can beat you up and nab your lunch money too.

They have peaked down the stretch, while Raya has not faltered either. As was the case six days ago at Tottenham, his was not an error-free performance. Another referee and his video assistant might have concluded that there was not enough pressure placed on him by Dominic Solanke to cause him to misplace a punch that resulted in Antoine Semenyo thumping the ball into his net. As is so often the case with Raya, however, that incident did not blow him off course as it might his predecessor between the sticks. Now, a man whose season started four games late, and who has missed two games against parent club Brentford has won the Golden Glove with weeks to spare.

Arsenals’ summer transfers carrying the load

Arsenal took big swings this summer. None of them were universally celebrated, even by me. Could Rice contribute in a more advanced role when Thomas Partey or Jorginho started? A return of eight assists and seven goals, one more than Granit Xhaka delivered in his outstanding swansong, answers that. Did Raya constitute a meaningful upgrade on Aaron Ramsdale? The composure with which he snuffed out a Bournemouth break out in the second half spoke to qualities Arsenal had been missing.

Then there was the great enigma of Havertz. Too costly a reclamation project for a player whose spirit had been crushed at Stamford Bridge? “I enjoy every second,” said the German of life under Arteta, who found himself running out of superlatives for his center forward. “He’s taught me so many good things, especially at the beginning when it was tough for me. I’m so glad I’m here.” Arsenal are so glad to have him, a bruiser in languid playmaker’s clothing.

A summer of bold, aggressive decisions has been vindicated once more, even when what looked to be the shrewdest pick up — utility defender Jurrien Timber — has missed all but 50 minutes of the league season. 

“If we spend money we’d better do it wisely and in the most effective way! We’re really happy with the recruitment that we had. It had a big impact in the team, it has raised not only the level of the team but the level of the rest of the players as well,” Arteta said after the match.

Each of his summer signings got their flowers. The defense that Raya anchors “gives us a huge foundation to be closer to winning trophies.” The “unbelievable” Havertz was celebrated for “the timings, the movements, how he keeps the ball, the way he goes to the press, how he links play, his understanding of the game.”

Even Rice, a man signed to be the “lighthouse” of this Arsenal team, has taken Arteta by surprise with his ability to drift between midfield anchor and dynamo. “He’s done it. Credit to him. Even when we’ve changed him from position to position, it’s not easy to adapt to that, so I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Like Bowie in the 70s, Prince in the 80s or Dua in the 20s, Arsenal’s recruitment is hit after hit after hit. Leandro Trossard, the man who soothed those second half nerves with the most composed finish of the day, is averaging 0.85 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes since he left Brighton in January 2023. That isn’t just the leading mark at the Emirates Stadium, it’s a tally bettered by only five players across the league. In between Mohamed Salah and Ollie Watkins, it’s not a bad landing spot for the second choice signing to offer depth behind Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. That same window brought Jorginho and Jakub Kiwior, both of whom have had runs of form where they looked undroppable this season.

So rapidly are standards rising around these parts that transformative additions such as Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus are fighting for their long term futures. The latter, at least, did his cause no harm after his introduction in the 87th minute, his quick feet teeing up Rice for the third.

All this excellence on the pitch and in the market might not quite be enough this season. The only thing Arsenal can do for now is keep asking City if they can win their next game. Even if they do fall short at the final hurdle, however, Arteta and Edu will go again this summer. The form of Rice, Havertz and Raya would suggest that Arsenal will be an even greater force coming out of the summer months.

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