Can Arsenal finish in top four? Win vs. West Ham showed Gunners are playing for Mikel Arteta

What a difference a year makes.

When Arsenal lost at Everton almost 12 months ago they slumped to 15th in the Premier League and were just four points off the relegation zone.

It was the nightmare before Christmas for Mikel Arteta, but things are looking very different this time around with the Gunners who moved up to fourth place after Wednesday night’s 2-0 win against West Ham.

All eyes were on Arteta’s side when they lined up against Hammers, with many predicting they could implode following the controversy surrounding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

MORE: Why Aubameyang lost his place as Arsenal captain

But they did the exact opposite, turning in what was arguably their most complete performance of the season as they did what was needed to climb above David Moyes’ side and into the Champions League zone.

“I was really pleased,” Arteta said postgame. “With the attitude, commitment and quality we showed.

“There are really positive signs with the way the team has played. We’ve made some progress, but there is still a lot to do and we have to be aware of that.

“We’ve had some bumps in the road, but we’ve learned a lot from them and we have stuck together, from the top of the club to every member of the team and staff.

“The biggest compliment I feel — and the players feel the same way — is the way we have our crowd behind us, and it’s been a while. To see that chemistry between team and crowd is unique and I’m so proud of that.”

Given everything that had gone on in the past week, the response from the Arsenal players was seriously impressive.

They could have gone into their shell after the defeats at Manchester United and Everton, but instead they dusted themselves down and picked up maximum points from matches against Southampton and West Ham.

And they did so while playing under the backdrop of the Aubameyang situation.

It would have been easy to let the fallout from the decision to strip the striker of the captaincy have an impact on the pitch but, if anything, it inspired them to two of their best performances of the season.

MORE: Updated list of matches postponed due to COVID-19

Questions were rightly asked about their top-four credentials after the defeats at Old Trafford and Goodison Park, and while they haven’t answered them all in the last week, they have at the very least shown they are up for the fight.

Many wondered whether Arteta’s tough stance on Aubameyang following his latest disciplinary breach could lead to a split in the Arsenal camp.

But there was no sign of that as the Gunners largely dominated West Ham.

Alexandre Lacazette was given the armband, as he was against Southampton, and produced a tireless performance as the central striker, while 20-year-old Gabriel Martinelli and 20-year-old Bukayo Saka were electric either side of him.

Both youngsters were exceptional and it was no surprise they were heavily involved in the goals.

Martinelli scored the first, finishing superbly from Lacazette’s pass, while Saka set up 21-year-old Emile Smith Rowe for the second following a fabulous late breakaway.

It was a performance full of intensity and energy from Arsenal and one that should kill any talk of a potential dressing-room split.

Aubameyang might be well liked by the squad, but Arteta clearly still has the full backing of his players on this evidence.

“The players play for the club,” the Spaniard said. “They played with the fight and the energy that we expect from them. They were really good, all of them.

“The senior players led by example and I’m really pleased. They seem to really enjoy helping the [young] boys in a context that has been difficult.”

MORE: Should Arsenal transfer Aubameyang in January?

Arsenal will now head to Leeds on Saturday, Dec. 18 sitting inside the Champions League places. Whether they can stay there will largely depend on how they get on at places like Elland Road between now and the end of the season.

Arteta’s side has been excellent at home since the start of the campaign, having amassed 22 points from their nine Premier League games at the Emirates. No team has picked up more.

It’s been a different story on their travels, however, with five of their six league defeats so far coming outside of north London.

That is something that has to change if the Gunners are going to secure a seat at Europe’s top table for next season.

For now, though, Arsenal are sitting pretty in fourth place in the Premier League. And who would have predicted that last week — let alone last year.

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