At Least We Have Arsenal Back
4:18 PM EST on December 27, 2022
I can't be the only one who still isn't over the World Cup. Watching the tournament was like attending the greatest music festival of your life, full of your favorite bands playing all their best songs, accompanied by a few groups you weren't hip to who turned out to kick ass, capped by a final night that left you rocked, ravaged, overjoyed, and half-deaf. My ears are still ringing. All I want to do is sit around reminiscing about each act's set list, the little frills they added to songs that somehow improved on the recorded versions, and smiling big dumb smiles thinking about how it ended. The last thing on my mind is attending another show.
Alas, the show must go on—or, in the case of this bizarre and criminally mismanaged soccer season, the previously interrupted show must resume after its month-long pause. Yesterday marked the official return of the European club campaign, as the Premier League came back with it's traditional Boxing Day fixtures. It was fitting that the EPL started back up with its festive period, answering the World Cup's quadrennial gluttonous onslaught of action with England's annual edition. But coming off a month of the World Cup, a little over a week after that spectacular final, I could hardly bring myself to care even an iota about the Premier League.
I debated getting up early for the Boxing Day opener, an otherwise enticing Tottenham–Brentford matchup, but the prospect of more sleep handily won that argument. The 10:00 a.m. Eastern time slot brought more games, but I still felt no desire to prioritize putting anything on. By the time I remembered to check the scores it was already halftime, and the two matches I might've been called to watch—Southampton-Brighton and Leicester-Newcastle—both already had 2–0 scorelines that didn't augur well for much second-half excitement. Eventually I turned on Everton–Wolves during its final stretches and got to see Rayan Aït-Nouri score a last-minute winner that mostly just left me cold.
By that point I'd finally committed to sitting through the final two matches of the Premier League's not-so-triumphant return to action. Liverpool–Aston Villa was up first. That match featured England's trademark directness and breakneck pace, and had at least one moment of true genius in the form of a gorgeous Trent Alexander-Arnold pass. Nevertheless, while it's never boring watching some great players run free in a wide-open match, it still didn't really take hold of my attention.
But then Arsenal came on. I expected to watch the Arsenal-West Ham match much like I had the Liverpool-Aston Villa one, glancing up from my computer whenever the commentators' tenor implied there was something worth looking at. In actual fact, though, I was quickly captivated by the Gunners' play. For my money, Arsenal has been the coolest (club) team in the world this year, and the West Ham match demonstrated much of what makes them so. I love how this team climbs up and down the gears in the course of a match. They can go slow, fast, really slow, and really fast, and they can switch between them all will startling ease. Their style is so fluid, offering their slate of ball-loving players plenty of freedom to seek the ball out without being too restricted to their nominal starting positions. This group simply oozes technique, movement, imagination, athleticism, and confidence. Arsène Wenger, in the stands taking in his first live Arsenal match since he left the club in 2018, had to have been proud.
Even going into halftime down a goal after gifting the Hammers a penalty, Arsenal commanded the game from start to finish. If the Gunners' first half was marked by the little bit of rust that prevented their flowing moves from flooding West Ham's goal, the second half saw the rust fall away, clearing the team from all impediments. The equalizer (Bukayo Saka goal, Martin Odegaard assist), the go-ahead (Gabriel Martinelli goal, Granit Xhaka assist), and the win-sealing (Eddie Nketiah goal, Odegaard assist) goals all came within a 16-minute flurry. My favorite goal was probably the third one. What does it for me is the choreography of movements, the patience, the pace that slows and quickens from touch to touch, Ben White's little flick, Odegaard's luxurious first-time pass, Nketiah's brilliant turn, scoop, and shot. A delightful goal from a delightful team:
I still can't quite say that the Premier League has pulled me all the way back in. The games still have something of a preseason-like feel to them, and I hope the feelings I still get when I think about Tim Weah's shot or Jawad El Yamiq's kiss or Lionel Messi's entire deal don't leave me anytime soon. But when my usual enthusiasm for the club game does return, it'll be because of teams like Arsenal doing what they do that'll do the trick.