By the time Declan Rice eventually took to the pitch on his return to West Ham, his rescue mission had begun to look like an impossible task. The smattering of boos that greeted the return of only the third West Ham captain in history to lift a major honour were quickly drowned out by a rapturous roar, but they not for him. Rice had only been on for a matter of moments when Jarrod Bowen’s deflected strike cannoned in off Aaron Ramsdale and with it, Rice’s old club led his new club by three goals. By the end, Arsenal crashed out of the Carabao Cup with barely a whimper.
This was not a happy homecoming for Rice – it was a terrible night for Arsenal, a difficult evening for Ramsdale, and a regretful one for Mikel Arteta. The Arsenal manager took responsibility for the defeat after his side were second-best throughout. The Gunners have biggest priorities this season but with Rice starting on the bench, alongside Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Odegaard and William Saliba, those who were given their chance failed to take it. Jorginho was poor in midfield, the drop-off from Rice significant, while Kai Havertz and Reiss Nelson were ineffective.
Rice’s introduction off the bench came too late, as did the arrivals of Saka, Martinelli and Odegaard, who fired a consolation goal that was barely even acknowledged in the 95th minute. Arsenal took this fourth-round tie lightly and were punished: West Ham and David Moyes pulled off their plan and played the occasion well. They thoroughly deserved their place in the quarter-finals and despite drawing Liverpool at Anfield, the home fans will have left dreaming of another cup run.
After Rice helped inspire West Ham to the Europa Conference League last season, delivering a fitting send-off on his final appearance for the club, it could be that the Hammers win another trophy before he does. Rice, of course, has bigger goals than the Carabao Cup, but the competition serves as the perfect way for West Ham to build on last season’s success. West Ham took this seriously: Bowen and Lucas Paqueta were excellent, but the game’s outstanding moment came with Mohammed Kudus’s stunning second for the hosts. West Ham have invested the Rice money wisely.
Arsenal, though, had their lack of depth exposed. Arteta’s side were slow and ponderous, and it was no surprise to see Rice was summoned to begin his warm-up midway through the first half, greeted by a warm, rippling standing ovation from much of the London Stadium. After making changes, Arteta left himself with the security of a high-quality bench and it quickly became clear that Rice, Saka, Odegaard and Martinelli would be needed.
Arteta’s side looked flat from the start and the concession of a cheap corner invited West Ham to roll numbers forward and into the box. While Tomas Soucek grappled with Ramsdale on the goalline, Bowen aimed towards the front post with plenty of pace and whip. There was no West Ham player in sight but Arsenal got themselves into a mess: with Ramsdale pushing past Soucek and crashing into the back of Gabriel, Ben White, positioned in the wrong place, bundled into the net with his newly bleached blonde head.
The blame from an Arsenal perspective deserved to be shared around, yet the focus naturally fell on Ramsdale. The England international had his shirt pulled and felt he was fouled, if VAR was used in the Carabao Cup fourth round then it may have been overturned. Yet his appeals towards referee Anthony Taylor were in vain and an important night for the goalkeeper was off to a difficult start. Perhaps Ramsdale, clearly Arsenal’s No 2 now despite Arteta’s curious claim that he would be rotated with David Raya, felt under more pressure than he usually would have been before he was dropped.
There was certainly a sense of unease and panic in Arsenal’s defence. Ramsdale and Gabriel invited pressure as Arsenal struggled to play out, which played into West Ham’s hands. The hosts were up for it, Bowen raising the crowd with a challenge deep in Arsenal’s half, West Ham then forcing another corner with their subsequent press. Ramsdale was again targeted by Soucek and although West Ham finished the half without having a shot on target, registering just over 32 per cent of the possession, it felt as if Moyes’s side carried the greater threat on the counter-attack. Despite Arsenal’s possession, Havertz’s flicked header that forced an instinctive save from Lukasz Fabianski was the closest the visitors came.
But half-time came and went without any changes and Arsenal were almost punished within seconds of the restart. Paqueta slipped in Bowen with a reverse pass and Ramsdale was required to stretch his arms to deny the forward’s clever chip. White, this time, cleared the danger as he beat Kudus to the rebound. Still Rice warmed up, the intensity of his sprints on the touchline quickening, and it was just at the moment of the West Ham supporters bantering with their former captain that he “should have signed for a big club” that the Hammers doubled their lead.
Although not on the pitch, perhaps Rice could have been credited with the assist: it was with some of the record £105m that West Ham received for Rice this summer that led to the Hammers signing a player of the calibre of Kudus from Ajax. If Kudus has sparkled so far for West Ham with a couple of eye-catching goals and contributions, this was the 23-year-old’s most impressive yet. Controlling a high, diagonal pass, Kudus skilfully directed his touch to cut inside Oleksandr Zinchenko. Then, with the yard of space he had created, Kudus fired a zipping strike through the legs of Gabriel and into the bottom corner.
Arteta could not wait any longer: on came Rice to more than a few boos, soon followed by Saka and Martinelli, and then Odegaard. But by then it was too late: another White header caused chaos for Arsenal, only this time it set up Bowen on the edge of the box. Bowen’s strike took a slight deflection off Jakub Kiwior, which left a rather awkward-looking Ramsdale only able to parry the volley into his own net. Rice seemed to struggle on his return, with passes overhit to cheers from the home fans. It was only with the introduction of Odegaard that Arsenal began to look more like themselves, but when the captain fired a low finish past Fabianski in the 95th minute, there was barely anyone left in the away end to applaud it.
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