Havertz, Rice epitomise Arsenal’s progress in Bournemouth win

LONDON — Arsenal‘s recent transfer strategy was based on identifying individuals capable of making the difference in a Premier League title race and so it will be of immense satisfaction that Declan Rice and Kai Havertz came to the fore like this.

Rice scored one and made another after Havertz won a penalty to turn a potentially nervy afternoon in the home side’s favour as the Gunners beat AFC Bournemouth 3-0 to move, temporarily at least, four points clear at the top of the table. Second-placed Manchester City host Wolverhampton Wanderers later on Saturday.

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Whether it will be enough to secure Arsenal’s first league title since 2004 remains to be seen but two players acquired last summer at a combined expense of more than £170 million are making sure their challenge does not falter in the final stages, as was the case 12 months ago.

“If we spend money we’d better do it wisely and in the most effective way,” Arteta said after the game. “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.

“You see today we had some big performances from a lot of individuals. If we want to be at that stage you need that.”

This was the Gunners’ 26th league win of the season — equalling their Premier League record for a single campaign — achieved with their 88th goal, tying another record which they set last year.

Whatever happens from here, Arsenal have undeniably improved on last season. They have not been paralysed by the pressure this time around.

This particular fixture offers a clear annual snapshot of their evolution: last March, they needed a 97th-minute winner from Reiss Nelson to secure a dramatic 3-2 win at the end of a heartstopping encounter in which control was lost in the chaos.

On Saturday, they scored again in the 97th-minute, but this time Rice merely extended the winning margin for a victory which felt secure much earlier in the contest.

Although that is not to say there were not several tense moments, and for much of the first half it appeared Arsenal would not translate their total dominance to the scoreline.

They eventually did so through another sign of development in this team: utilising the so-called “dark arts.”

Arteta’s side faced accusations of naivety in last season’s Premier League title race and in their recent run to the Champions League quarterfinals, most obviously when FC Porto tested the limits in the round of 16 with a combination of gamesmanship and timewasting which disrupted Arsenal from their natural rhythm.

Havertz was the only player in the starting lineup for that first leg tie to have played a Champions League knockout tie — he scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the 2021 final — and so it’s perhaps no surprise he would exhibit such knowhow most prominently.

Arsenal scored with their 16th shot of the first half, a 45th-minute penalty converted by Bukayo Saka but won by Havertz. It was the sort of moment which challenges the idea that a dive and a legitimate penalty are mutually exclusive: Havertz beat Mark Travers to the ball but slowed his momentum and left his right leg in place long enough for the Bournemouth goalkeeper to touch him. Having been given on the field by referee David Coote, the VAR would almost never overturn such a call.

“Kai is not someone that dives but I haven’t seen the image,” said Arteta, in a moment which may be one of those learnings from Arsene Wenger — who often said he hadn’t seen an incident — he recently admitted to undertaking.

Of course, one man’s clever play is another’s devious deception. “Kai Havertz is the only one trying to find the contact,” Bournemouth boss Andoni Iraola said. “If we are giving penalties for this, then as a coach I have say it [to my players]: ‘look for the contact.'”

More generally, Havertz continues to thrive unexpectedly as a No. 9. “He was unbelievable today, honestly,” Arteta said. “Everything he did: 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.”

There were questionable officiating calls throughout. Ryan Christie escaped censure completely for a bad early tackle on Saka and after Leandro Trossard settled lingering Arsenal’s nerves with a 70th-minute strike, Antoine Semenyo had a goal harshly ruled out for a foul by Dominic Solanke on David Raya in the buildup — again a moment where the VAR would be reluctant to challenge the on-field call.

Arteta doubled down on his blind spot: “The honest answer is I haven’t seen any of the incidents because I knew you were going to ask me. I did it on purpose. The analysts said do you want to watch it and I said no because then I can tell the truth.”

Rice’s grip on the game by this point was clear, however. A clever assist for Trossard, shifting the ball with the outside of his right foot, preceded his own low finish which sealed a 3-0 win.

Only Kevin De Bruyne has more league assists in 2024 than Rice, who can count 15 goal contributions in the division this season — seven goals, and eight assists. He had 20 (10 goals, 10 assists) for West Ham in his previous six league seasons combined.

The 25-year-old’s positional switch from playing a deep-lying No. 6 to amore attack-minded No. 8 has been a revelation.

Asked whether he has been surprised by Rice’s numbers in the final third, Arteta said: “We thought that was going to be very related to the spaces he was going to occupy on the pitch. But then it’s something else to do it in this league. 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.”

On Arsenal’s evolution, Arteta added: “For some teams it takes them five or 10 years to achieve it. At the end we’re trying to do the right things. The energy and commitment that the boys put in is unbelievable. Hopefully it will pay off.”

Rice and Havertz are doing everything to ensure it does.