After the bitterness, the boos and the taunts of turmoil, Arsenal finally have a flicker of joy to kickstart their season. It might not have been the most gruelling of tests, with a Covid-stricken West Brom fielding an extremely inexperienced side, but it is an antidote nonetheless, a ray of hope to cut through the gloom that’s shrouded the club. A place in the Carabao Cup third round is not a feat to celebrate, but it’s a source of hope and an emphatic six-goal demolition delivered plenty of positives.
First and foremost, it was the hat-trick of Arsenal’s returning captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, that could prove most valuable. But the joy was spread widely and with little mercy for the Baggies. Martin Odegaard made a successful second debut, Aaron Ramsdale kept a clean sheet and Bukayo Saka seemed to resettle into the same groove that illuminated Euro 2020 this summer. They are the beacons that can still catch light, renew a lost sense of confidence, and promise that this season can be far more than another doomed narrative. A trip to Manchester City this weekend might trample that optimism as quickly as it raised its head, but this did at least offer, albeit against far less opposition, something for Arsenal supporters to savour at last.
Under a mounting burden of pressure, Arteta took few risks and brought the glamour of a £150m attack to the Hawthorns, and yet the last few weeks have rapidly stripped the Gunners of any delusions of grandeur. Nor was there any reverence or restraint shown by a young West Brom side that featured five debutants, who flung themselves into every tackle with the starved hunger and frothing aggression of waiting years for this opportunity. Odegaard was the first to feel the weight of that urgency, his ankles clattered by Quevin Castro inside the first few minutes.
West Brom might only have suffered relegation from the Premier League last season, but that duel alone illustrated the disparity between these two sides. A prodigy prised from Real Madrid in the hope of papering Arsenal’s deepening cracks against another hurtled through the trials and rejections of academy football before eventually being plucked from non-league. Then again, it was Castro who initially caught the eye most, with a feisty flair and irrepressible intent, and it was the Baggies who offered the first shots in venom, with the 18-year-old Tom Fellows forcing Aaron Ramsdale into a fine fingertip save on his own debut. Just minutes later, a cunning corner routine caught Arsenal’s defence hopelessly cold and Adam Reach dragged his shot just wide of the far post.
Before long, though, Arsenal’s quality – and West Brom’s inexperience – began to tell. Odegaard grew into the game and provided a neat link in attack, but it was Aubameyang’s promise that will sustain Arsenal’s hopes for the far greater and gruelling tests ahead. The captain, who’s now fully recovered from a recent bout of Covid-19, was energetic and direct, capitalising on the opposition’s recklessly high defensive line almost at will. Despite that, though, his two goals amounted to the simplest of tap-ins. The first came courtesy of a rebound off Saka’s shot, prodding into an empty net as West Brom’s defence disintegrated. The second required little more than mere instinct either, this time after Nicolas Pepe’s surging run and shot ricocheted off the post and into the striker’s path.
The two goals defused any tension around this tie and Arsenal finally settled into a rhythm. For all the toil surrounding the club, the kaleidoscope of emotions that blur into constant repetition, this was the ideal remedy and distraction. It did not require any great imagination either, with Aubameyang again surging straight through the heart of West Brom’s defence on the brink of half time, and after a failed chip resulted in a miscued bicycle kick, Pepe ended the theatrics by slotting home the third goal to render the remainder of this tie obsolete.
There was to be no respite for West Brom, though, and the procession showed little sign of abating after half-time. Saka, who enjoyed a cathartic performance, rewarded a brilliant performance with an even more exquisite goal, driving past three defenders before a one-two with Odegaard set up a curled shot into the top corner.
West Brom might not have deserved any further embarrassment, but nothing would stand in the way of Aubameyang completing his hat-trick. It was a goal worthy of the feat, too, and with the Baggies’ defence all but resigned to the drubbing, Aubameyang jinked inside onto his right foot and dinked a wonderful shot into the top corner with a note of unmistakable nonchalance.
The final dagger in the massacre was delivered by Alexandre Lacazette, who was also making his return from illness. The forward, who Arsenal have made no secret about wishing to sell this summer, might just have helped that cause, too, driving home a low shot at the near post after yet more fine running on the right wing from Pepe. But with little time to get carried away or celebrate this small glory, the greater question is whether Arsenal can now get any sort of run going.
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