It was an afternoon when the West Ham support could not bear to watch. So many of them did not. Four-nil down in first-half stoppage-time, their team as abject as Arsenal had been assured, there was a remarkable scene on the concourses outside the London Stadium – a knot of thousands of home fans, who did not appear in any rush to return.
Some of them did, trickling in as the second half got going and there was a point – after what had to have been a good deal of conscience-searching – when the ground did not look too empty. That would change.
It had to be Declan Rice. The former West Ham hero had set up goals with whipped free-kicks for William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães – numbers one and three, to be precise – when Ben White passed back and Leandro Trossard and Martin Ødegaard left it for each other. Enter Rice.
The midfielder’s shot from outside the area curled away from Alphonse Areola to find the far corner and that sound you heard were of seats clicking back and people making for the exits. Rice did not celebrate and when he was substituted immediately afterwards, there was generous applause from the West Ham fans who had stayed.
For Arsenal, it is four wins out of four since the winter break, this a result to back up last Sunday’s big one against Liverpool. It was the burying of a ghost because it was in this game last season – a 2-2 draw from 2-0 up, Bukayo Saka also missing a penalty at 2-1 – that started the unravelling of their title challenge.
But the story, equally, was of West Ham’s humiliation – how, after Saka had made it 2-0 from the penalty spot, they subsided to such an extent that the TV cameras were picking out the club’s owner, David Sullivan, and wondering what he might do next with the manager, David Moyes.
West Ham beat Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium on 28 December – a result that seemed to have been lifted from another life-time. They have not won since. It was Arsenal’s joint biggest margin of victory in an away league game and one short of their all-time mark – the 7-0 Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup victory at Standard Liege in 1993.
Mikel Arteta did not deviate too far from what had brought his team this far, although there was a twist in the continued injury-enforced absence of Gabriel Jesus – Trossard as a false nine. Arteta had omitted Jorginho despite his man-of-the-match display against Liverpool, Kai Havertz dropping back into midfield. Nobody could say that the manager did not get his approach absolutely right.
Arsenal were patient at first, laying the groundwork for their control. They did not panic when Trossard missed a straightforward header from a whipped Saka cross. He never looked like scoring. This is what happens when you lack a true No 9, it felt as though people might say. That plot-line would be rather overtaken.
Ditto the one about Arsenal trying to score the perfect goal. They almost did when Ødegaard released Gabriel Martinelli with a lovely ball over the top. When Martinelli cut back from the left, Ødegaard was close to reaching it, having not hung around to admire the pass. He did not quite get there. Same old Arsenal?
By then, Trossard had drawn a reflex save out of Areola with a banging volley from Martinelli’s cross but everything would change – sharply – when Rice curled in a free-kick from the inside left and Saliba was simply too strong for Edson Álvarez, too full of desire.
There was no secret about what Moyes wanted to do – remain compact, cede possession, punch hard and fast on the counter; ideally after pinching the ball high up. West Ham did not do any of it. Their first-half performance was an abdication; it was no exaggeration to say that Arsenal could have been 7-0 up by the end of it.
West Ham fell apart after the penalty, which was awarded when Saka fastened onto a long ball from Trossard, went around Areola, felt the contact and went down. Saka had blown a couple of chances – a free header from Jakub Kiwior’s cross, an over-cooked dink after Odegaard’s prod. What happened here last season also had to have been on his mind. He did not show it.
The home crowd had booed Rice at the outset, not with any real venom; more because it felt like something they probably ought to do. There was some applause for him when he went to take an early corner. But the jeers upon the half-time whistle for Moyes and his players had feeling, all right.
West Ham had conceded the third when Rice sent in another free-kick and Gabriel, having stepped back from an offside position, timed his move forward for an easy header. It was Arsenal’s 16th set-piece goal of the season, excluding penalties – a league high. The fourth, meanwhile, was even easier, West Ham’s resistance powder-puff. Álvarez lost possession and then it was Havertz to Ødegaard to Trossard, who came inside – under no pressure – to guide into the far corner.
The second half was nothing more than a contractual obligation. Trossard shot high and Saka was denied by Areola before Saka exploded inside to drill one into the near corner. Then came Rice and the exodus. By full-time, only the hardiest souls remained. “Thank-you for your support, have a safe journey home,” the stadium announcer said, brusquely.