West Ham United 1 – 3 Arsenal
1 – 0 Cole (46)
1 – 1 Walcott (68)
1 – 2 Walcott (71)
1 – 3 Podolski (79)
Arsène Wenger has no need to call Batman, he found his own superhero sitting a matter of feet away. Lukas Podolski emerged from the bench to spark the Arsenal attack into life and play a pivotal role as the three points took Arsenal back to the top of the table. But it was three points that took time to arrive; indeed, for twenty minutes they seemed to have slid down the Batpole into the clutches of Wenger’s nemesis, Dr Sam Allardyce, as Arsenal were sporadically indifferent in front of goal. And when they weren’t being indifferent, they were just being horrible.
Surprisingly, it was injury which forced Arsène’s hand in making changes as Aaron Ramsey’s thigh muscles strained meaning that cards had to be played. Prior to that, he seemed genuinely disinclined to make any amendment to the XI; perhaps he could not decide who to haul off such was the general average-ness of the performances. Only Mertesacker, Arteta and Cazorla produced performances of note for the right reasons. Olivier Giroud was intent on presenting a case for activity in the transfer market next month with his finishing, thankfully his work rate was exemplary to offer hope for the future.
He must have wished he had Theo Walcott’s luck. The England forward was largely anonymous before two quick-fire goals turned the game on its head. Arsenal’s profligacy seemed to bite them on the backside as Carlton Cole capitalised on slack goalkeeping from Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole was not the only one at fault; the original move which led to Nolan’s shot from the edge of the area had begun from an Arsenal counter which broke down through sloppy passing. The hosts had opportunities to increase their advantage; one might easily have become two or three. Then Walcott intervened, dribbling a shot past Adrian and within three minutes, reacting quickest as Podolski’s cross flicked off a defensive head into his path. A salmon-like leap into the ball’s new trajectory buried the chance. The German then curled the ball home for the match-settling goal following good work by Giroud.
In yesterday’s preview, I noted that the performance did not matter, the result did so it seems somewhat churlish to pick holes in the win. But as much as three points was desperately needed ahead of the trip to Newcastle, Arsenal will need to make more of their opportunities this coming Sunday. There was a hint of last Autumn’s desperate form in the manner chances were frittered; indeed some of the individual performances were of that ilk as, one assumes, tiredness crept in despite nine days rest.
There were those who rose above that; Mertesacker was dominant in the centre of the defence whilst Arteta underlined his importance to the side in forming a barrier to West Ham’s midfield. The most concern the home side caused came, unsurprisingly, from set-pieces as Allardyce’s charges reverted to Big Sam’s type, entirely unadventurous and drab. To some extent, Arsenal forced this from the East Enders as they became immersed in the patterns woven during the first forty-five minutes with Santi Cazorla at the heart of everything good from the visitors.
Arsène noted afterwards that the response to Cole’s goal provided evidence that the squad were title contenders. They are by virtue of their position in the Premier League and there is no denying that they are well-placed going into the New Year. Whether they stay there is another matter. The upcoming fixtures suggest that is an entirely plausible train of thought; the team has to deliver the points to substantiate it.
Post-match, the manager contradicted the evidence of his own eyes whilst talking up title chances,
For us we have another good game now on Sunday at Newcastle who are in full confidence as well so that will be another test. The team wants to do well and the character is great. The concentration is top. I believe we had a difficult period just now but honestly that was mainly down to the schedule we had. I think that the schedule was absolutely horrendous but we can show that in the future
Concentration was anything but top. If it was “top”, we may have a few problems. The misses in the first half, the goal conceded; none of them were as a result of “top” concentration. Arsenal reeled following the goal but they pulled themselves back into the game with Podolski pivotal to that. Wenger’s decision not to substitute anyone on Monday was surprising, the repeat of the pattern until the unfortunate Ramsey’s withdrawal was perhaps more so. This from a man who habitually began the cycle of replacements on the hour mark of games. The horrendous schedule forgotten with the impending visit to St James Park; perhaps two and half days between fixtures at this time of year is deemed to be quite a light workload.
Of course it wouldn’t be Arsenal if there was not a gripe about the referee. Dowd followed Dean’s path and shied away from making a key decision in not administering a second yellow to O’Brien. In the end, it had no influence on the game and given Arsenal’s form for the first hour, perhaps playing against ten men would have provided no advantage.
As it is, Arsenal sit atop the Premier League following their first win four attempts. It was much-needed to restore confidence and belief which had taken some blows in the recent run. I wonder if so many will be keen to point out what advantage the leaders on Boxing Day hold?