West Ham United 1-3 Arsenal: A Fortuitous Substitution

Sometimes, those "substitution" things can change a result for the better...how about that?

We get ahead of ourselves, though.

Coming off a string of poor results capped by a dispiriting draw against a beatable Chelsea side, this felt like a must-win fixture for the Gunners. Factor in today's weak opponents, and there is an argument that defeat was not an option for a side with title aspirations.

Admittedly, I was surprised to see that only one change was made from the eleven that played all 90 minutes against the Chavs three short days ago - Santi Cazorla came in for Tomas Rosicky. Given that teamsheet, I wasn't shocked that the same almost-eleven spent the first half sleepwalking through one of the more jaded displays I've seen in quite some time.

Don't get me wrong...I'm not having a go at the players. These guys have all played a ton of minutes this season, and were only a few days removed from one of the more physically and mentally-draining fixtures we'll play this season. Still, West Ham have not turned into a decent side overnight - the gaps were there but the Arsenal simply didn't have the verve or the spirit to take advantage.

It's a shame, too, as the Hammers' backline were in utter disarray. James Collins was off-kilter to begin with before withdrawing due to injury, and Joey O'Brien was booked early after being torched for pace by the excellent Kieran Gibbs. This was a defense begging to be torn open. I can't help feeling like a different team selection may have had the matter settled by halftime.

As it was, the first stanza sprung to life just as time was winding down - Mikel Arteta flashed an effort just the wrong side of the post, while Kevin Nolan might have done better with his chance right at the death. Thankfully for us, Wojciech Szczesny darted off his line and put him off just enough.

We Gooners could be forgiven for assuming that our boys would kick on and take it to the home side after the interval. Instead, a horrendous error from Szczesny gifted them the lead before the pond life at the Boleyn Ground could return to their seats. Arsenal were in disarray to begin with when Szczesny spilled a tame shot from Mark Noble. Carlton Cole - who had a pretty good game for them if we're being fair - was there to bundle home the rebound.

I will be honest with you, reader. I thought we were toast at that point. I figured that the team would be too dispirited, that Wenger would wait until it was far too late to make substitutions (if at all), that a suddenly-enervated West Ham side would spur themselves on for three desperately-needed points...much like Sunderland and Crystal Palace did in their games today.

It almost happened, too. The Hammers had a few chances to put us away right after they scored - thankfully, O'Brien just missed with a thumping header and Cole diverted wide when it may have been easier to score.

That was their chance, and they blew it. Our reply came when an unfortunate injury to Aaron Ramsey forced Arsene's hand into bringing on Lukas Podolski. Ramsey had, for the third or fourth game running, offered little going forward against a packed enemy defense. Much of his success this season has been on the counter with the opposition stretched, not when they are massed in two banks of four. So, while I hope he's OK and available for selection again soon, it also was in one sense the best thing that could have happened to us on the day.

A quick aside regarding the esteemed Mr. Podolski, if I may. It drove me utterly insane that he never came on against Chelsea, and it would have done had he not come on today. At times, Poldi can be a luxury player - he drifts through matches on occasion and he's hardly diligent in defense. But, what he is more than anything else is a pit fighter. He has little use when our elegant, flowing football is on point...but when we need someone to get into the dirty areas and hit them with a sledgehammer when graceful ripostes aren't working, he's our man. End of.

He didn't stand on ceremony, either. He came onto the field in the 64th minute, tested Adrian in the West Ham goal in the 65th, we equalized in the 67th, and took the lead in the 70th. All he did was come into the game and shift it entirely off its axis.

We do have to spare a kind word for Adrian as well, though. Clearly, both keepers were in the Christmas gift-giving spirit as the Spaniard's howler was every inch as bad as Szczesny's. Theo Walcott, who had been something beyond useless up until that point, found some room between West Ham's lines and scuffed a shot on net. It looked like Adrian lost sight of it briefly, as it somehow went right through him and in. I don't exaggerate when I say that had he stopped that, we may have lost the game.

He didn't though, and it clearly wilted his teammates' self-belief while simultaneously spurring us on. No prizes for guessing who the architect of the second was, Podolski's direct running and fabulous cross gifting Walcott his second goal on a plate. Six minutes later, Poldi got the goal he richly deserved with an unstoppable low drive into the far corner.

Let's all resolve to remember this match and how important these three points were if we do go on to challenge for the title, shall we?

Obviously, the result was a massive one and we should revel in our festive good cheer. However, we have a tricky visit to St. James' Park on Sunday, followed almost immediately by a home match with Cardiff on New Year's Day. As we head into those matches, there are some negatives to go along with today's good works.

For one thing, Olivier Giroud was dreadful once again. He was again guilty of spurning a few half-chances badly, failing to so much as get anything on net. He more than anyone else in the side looks jaded and exhausted, and I am officially going on record to say that I'd start Nicklas Bendtner against Newcastle if it were up to me. The Danish Samurai looked lively in his sub appearance today, and Giroud could do with the reminder that no one's place in the team is secure.

The other side of the coin though is that Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker look to be on the same page and in good form. We knew about the BFG of course, and he was excellent once again for us in defense. I was more worried about his partner, but TV5 has shaken off some early yips to look fairly solid alongside Mert. I don't know exactly how long Laurent Koscielny is going to be out, but we are going to depend on the Belgian to see us through until that day. 

Also, Santi Cazorla looked far better than he has in recent matches, and is another who can say that a short spell on the sidelines did him the world of good. He wasn't entirely his old magical self on the day, but the green shoots were there. He did well to retain possession on more than one occasion, and he was one of the few whose passes had any conviction behind them in the early going. Mesut Ozil is going to have to sit for one of these upcoming games, you feel...a fit and firing Cazorla will be vital to provide us with that little bit extra to unlock determined defenses.

All of that is a worry for another day, though. I sincerely hope that you had a fantastic Christmas (or whatever else you may celebrate), and I hope you enjoyed today's three points. I know I did.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 5, Gibbs 8, Vermaelen 7, Mertesacker 8, Sagna 7, Arteta 7, Ramsey 6 (Podolski 9), Cazorla 7, Ozil 7 (Flamini 7), Walcott 8, Giroud 6 (Bendtner 7)

Man of the Match: Our smiling pit fighter, Lukas Podolski.