Three things from a frantic, frenetic Boxing Day in the Premier League...
1. Walcott and Podolski are just like new signings
No one expected West Ham to beat Arsenal. Not even the hardiest of Sam Allardyce disciples would have fancied him to wake up on Dec. 26 after his Christmas dinner with sufficient wherewithal to mastermind a significant Prem shock.
And yet it seemed unsurprising that, after a first half comprised entirely of errant passes and general boredom, the game burst into life after the break with the Hammers taking the lead. Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny's fumble of an innocuous Kevin Nolan shot gave Carlton Cole a simple, close-range finish that even he could convert.
The Gunners didn't so much respond as invite the home side to try to score a second as Joey O'Brien and Cole wasted good chances. However, in the end, Allardyce's reductive plans couldn't cope with Theo Walcott or Lukas Podolski as Arsenal rallied for a 3-1 win.
While some pundits make a tidy cottage industry of questioning Arsenal's lack of depth on a daily basis, others felt (and knew) that the return of the aforementioned pair would boost a lagging squad at a time when fixture pileup threatened to derail a promising season.
The pair's natural width serves as a vital antidote to the Gunners' increasingly narrow play, opening room for Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla to pick apart opponents. With Olivier Giroud having failed to score since Nov. 23 in all competitions, the need for other outlets is an increasing concern.
Enter the injury-struck pair to show how it’s done on Boxing Day.
First, Walcott equalized as West Ham goalkeeper Adrian allowed a low, weak shot to skid under his slowly diving frame. Then, Podolski's perfect left-flank cross found an unmarked Walcott -- the Englishman stands at 5-foot-7 -- for a fine, predatory header.
From there, it appeared only one team had the muscle to collect all three points, and Podolski made it certain with a thumping, 18-yard drive after Giroud's delicate knockdown.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger silenced desperate fans with a splurge on Ozil in the summer, and pressure is again rising for him to spend and further improve his tired squad in January.
Though Arsenal could benefit from defensive reinforcements, the smooth return of Walcott and Podolski proves that it might be all right for the wallet to stay closed once the transfer window opens.
2. Tottenham a case study in entertainment
Hey, look -- Spurs are still a work in progress. But what fun they are in the process.
Manager Tim Sherwood's adventurous lineup choices versus Southampton -- no real central midfielders of note, Christian Eriksen on the wing, TWO STRIKERS -- paid off with a helter-skelter win that owed much to Emmanuel Adebayor's brace.
Adhering to the "If It Isn't Broken" school of thought, Tottenham's new man in charge went back to the well against West Brom, only to earn a much different result. Despite taking on a Baggies team that was winless in their past seven league fixtures, Tottenham had to settle for a 1-1 draw.
Adebayor and Roberto "What Is A Goal?" Soldado looked less menacing -- the (former?) frontman troubled the offside flags more than anything else -- while Eriksen, Lewis Holtby, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Nacer Chadli had much less room in which to create.
In the 36th minute, Eriksen's fine free kick looped over the wall and pinged down off the bar while West Brom keeper Ben Foster simply watched. Yet Tottenham's advantage lasted all of 120 seconds. Upon the resumption, Eriksen turned villain as his silly foul earned the Baggies a set piece deep in Tottenham territory.
Morgan Amalfitano's in-swinger was shinned into the 6-yard box by Tottenham defender Vlad Chiriches, teeing Jonas Olsson up nicely, and he thudded it beyond helpless keeper Hugo Lloris.
The second-half arrival of Tottenham midfielder Nabil Bentaleb, who impressed everyone last weekend with his composed debut, didn't swing things decisively as Foster made a string of impressive saves for the visitors.
Ultimately, the so-so affair summed up life for Spurs at the moment: artistry undone by error, and while it cost Andre Villas-Boas his job, it’s earned Sherwood an 18-month run in charge. Bold lineup choices won’t always be rewarded and, at some point, the novelty has to be replaced with something more worthwhile.
3. Red Cards are bad. No, seriously!
Presumably, Martin Atkinson got several lumps of coal in his Christmas stocking instead of that shiny gadget he always wanted. How else to explain his bizarre "bah humbug" approach to refereeing at St. James' Park?
After Oussama Assaidi's fine curled finish gave Stoke a deserved lead after a half-hour, red cards four minutes apart for Stoke's Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson pushed the advantage decisively back into Newcastle's favour -- somewhere it had rarely deserved to be up to that point.
That hosts Newcastle would go on to score four unanswered goals after the break in a 5-1 rout is beside the point. Stoke manager Mark Hughes had good reason to shed his puffy overcoat and remonstrate -- he was sent off for his petulance, too -- as neither red was unanimous.
Whelan's second yellow was a foul of the most mundane variety, while Wilson's straight red for tripping Loic Remy in the box seemed equally dubious. Though the Magpies loanee had done well to get goal-side of the Potters defender, the nearby presence of Ryan Shawcross made Remy's "clear goal-scoring opportunity" as cloudy as Atkinson's logic skills.
At Goodison Park, a similar horror was unfolding. Everton had yet to be beaten at home in 2013 and were collecting points and momentum as rapidly as manager Roberto Martinez reaped praise for his expansive, thoughtful transformation of Everton, previously managed by David Moyes.
Cue keeper Tim Howard's 23rd-minute dismissal for tripping Sunderland's Ki Sung-Yueng in the box. It was a truly ugly sequence, the kind that can make hangovers last for days rather than hours.
The American's gentle restart pass to Leon Osman seemed simple enough ... until Osman's slip allowed Ki Sung-Yueng to slip in on goal. Howard stuck out a leg, Ki found it and the rest is history. (Osman's punishment for his error? An immediate substitution for backup keeper Joel Robles.)
Howard's first Premier League sending off gave way to a desperate 1-0 home defeat for Everton. It did not pull Sunderland off the bottom of the table -- due to late wins by Crystal Palace and Fulham -- but at least it kept Gus Poyet's men closer to the pack.
Back to that dismissal. Did Howard touch Ki? Does it even matter? The defeat took a small amount of sheen off the Toffees' impressive season to date and denied them the chance to spring into third place. That said, Martinez and Everton will be in that mix come May.
It seems obvious to point out that red cards aren't hallmarks of winning efforts, but Boxing Day brought two games firmly decided by the flash of crimson.
Everton can feel upset but hardly begrudged, while Potters fans would be justified in protesting to the league, given how much Atkinson's harsh interventions impacted proceedings for them.