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Arsenal’s title hunt continues as Declan Rice and Kai Havertz prove their worth in the hunt for Manchester City

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Arsenal's title hunt continues as Declan Rice and Kai Havertz prove their worth in the hunt for Manchester City

LONDON — Another year, another bolt of lightning in the 98th minute that electrified the Emirates Stadium. This time, however, it was not a miraculous comeback that Arsenal celebrated, but a consummate performance that means they are going nowhere as the title race heads into the final straight.

This time, Reiss Nelson’s heroics are not necessary. Mikel Arteta and Edu have ensured that this summer with a recruitment wave that is increasingly showing signs of a masterstroke. Declan Rice, Kai Havertz and, with a little helping hand from VAR Peter Bankes, David Raya ensured Bournemouth did not come as close to a point as on their last visit to N5. What appeared to be the toughest assignment on their playing list – and proved to be so at times in the second half – was negotiated with a refinement and muscularity that Arsenal had long since failed at this stage last season.

At the forefront of that effort were Havertz and Rice. The former won the controversial penalty allowing Bukayo Saka to translate “the best first half of the season” into a one-goal lead. The latter provided the assist for the second and set up the third, in which Arsenal are four points ahead of Manchester City. These two are increasingly looking like examples of what Arteta always wanted this team to be: a side that will not only beat you, but can beat you up and take your lunch money.

They have reached their peak, while Raya has not failed either. Just like six days ago at Tottenham, his performance was not without fault. Another referee and his video assistant might have concluded that there was not enough pressure put on him by Dominic Solanke to cause him to misplace a punch, causing Antoine Semenyo to punch the ball into his net. But as is so often the case with Raya, that incident did not throw him off course, as his predecessor between the sticks would have done. Now a man whose season started four games late and who missed two games against parent club Brentford has won the Golden Glove with weeks to go.

Arsenal’s summer transfers are carrying the load

Arsenal have undergone major changes this summer. None of them were universally celebrated, not even by me. Could Rice contribute in a more advanced role when Thomas Partey or Jorginho started? A return of eight assists and seven goals, one more than Granit Xhaka delivered in his excellent swan song, is the answer to that. Was Raya a meaningful upgrade for Aaron Ramsdale? The calmness with which he suppressed a Bournemouth outbreak in the second half showed qualities that Arsenal had been missing.

Then there was the great enigma of Havertz. An overpriced recovery project for a player whose spirit was crushed at Stamford Bridge? “I’m enjoying every second of it,” said the German of life under Arteta, who found himself running out of superlatives for his striker. “He taught me so many good things, especially in the beginning when things were hard for me. I’m so happy to be here.” Arsenal are so happy to have him, a powerhouse in languid playmaker’s clothing.

A summer of bold, aggressive decisions has been vindicated once again, even as what seemed like the brightest pickup – utility defender Jurrien Timber – has missed all but 50 minutes of the league season.

“If we are going to spend money, we better do it wisely and in the most effective way possible! We are very happy with the recruitment we have had. It has had a big impact on the team, not only has it raised the level of team but also the level of the rest of the players,” Arteta said after the match.

Each of his summer signings received a flower. The defense that Raya anchors “gives us a huge foundation to get closer to winning trophies.” The “incredible” Havertz was celebrated for “the timing, the movements, how he holds the ball, the way he presses, how he connects the play, his understanding of the game.”

Even Rice, a man signed as the ‘lighthouse’ of this Arsenal team, has surprised Arteta with his ability to float between midfield anchor and dynamo. “He did it. All credit to him. Even if we 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.”

Like Bowie in the 1970s, Prince in the 1980s or Dua in the 20s, Arsenal’s recruitment is hit after hit after hit. Leandro Trossard, the man who calmed second-half nerves with the most composed finish of the day, has averaged 0.85 goals and non-penalty assists per 90 minutes since leaving Brighton in January 2023. Emirates Stadium, a score bettered by only five players in the competition. Between Mohamed Salah and Ollie Watkins, it’s not a bad landing spot for the second choice, offering depth behind Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. The same period brought Jorginho and Jakub Kiwior, both of whom have had form where they have looked unstoppable this season.

Standards in these parts are rising so quickly that transformational additions like Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus are fighting for their long-term future. The latter certainly did him no harm after his introduction in the 87th minute, his quick feet putting Rice on the tee for a third time.

All this excellence on the field and in the market may not be enough this season. All Arsenal can do for now is keep asking City if they can win their next game. Even if they don’t reach the final hurdle, Arteta and Edu will go again this summer. The form of Rice, Havertz and Raya suggests that Arsenal will be an even bigger force in the coming summer months.