THIS victory was not a thing of beauty, but for Mikel Arteta it will have meant the world.
If Arsenal are to end their five-year exile from the Champions League, the Gunners boss will look back on fondness to a day when two headed goals from centre-half won a thoroughly untidy London derby.
Gabriel was the match winner for the GunnersCredit: Jamie McPhilimey
Rob Holding and Gabriel propelled Arsenal back into the top four at the expense of rivals Tottenham – and keeper Aaron Ramsdale was fortunate to escape punishment for a reckless tackle on Hammers’ scorer Jarrod Bowen.
But Arteta’s youthful side are proving they can dog out results down the final straight – a good omen for what is likely to be a Champions League decider at Spurs on Thursday week.
West Ham are prioritising a different route into the European elite – and midway between the two legs of their Europa League semi-final with Eintracht Frankfurt – boss David Moyes rested a few of his big guns.
But after Spurs had ramped up the pressure on Arsenal by sneaking back into fourth place with a 3-1 victory over Leicester earlier in the afternoon, Arsenal edged a valuable muck-and-nettles, hairs-on-chest sort of a win.
West Ham had beaten the rest of the ‘Big Six’ this season but Moyes made five changes from the side beaten 2-1 by Eintracht here on Thursday night.
We had Bowen as a ‘false nine’ and left-back Aaron Cresswell standing in as a ‘false five’, with right-back Ryan Fredericks filling in for him as a ‘false three’.
You get the picture, Moyes is having to make-do-and-mend with a squad at full stretch.
Arsenal hardly started with the confidence of a side who had just recorded back-to-back victories over Chelsea and Manchester United.
Although, early on, the quality of the passing on both sides was shockingly poor, considering both clubs might easily be playing Champions League football next season.
It took 29 minutes for either side to put together a decent move – West Ham breaking with purpose and Manuel Lanzini, in space, seeing his shot brilliantly blocked by Holding.
But shortly before the break, it all started livening up considerably.
Martin Odegaard slipped through a pass to Eddie Nketiah, whose shot was pushed away by Lukasz Fabianski at full stretch.
From the resulting corner, Holding won a wrestling match with Lanzini and advanced to meet Bukayo Saka’s centre with a leap and a forceful header into the far corner.
It was Holding’s first Premier League goal, in his 81st top-flight appearance.
Yet West Ham responded well to their kick up the backside and from a corner of their own, Declan Rice’s header forced a flying save from Ramsdale.
Rob Holding opened the scoring for ArsenalCredit: Jamie McPhilimey
And just before the interval, the Hammers were level. With Nuno Tavares having one of his switched-off moments at left-back, Rice sprayed a pass out to an unmarked Vladimir Coufal.
The overlapping Czech fed Bowen, who controlled and smacked home a shot which took a deflection off Gabriel on its way past Ramsdale, for his 17th goal in all competitions this term.
Then, after we’d waited 52 minutes for our retiring hero to get in on the act, the Mike Dean farewell tour got into full swing.
Bowen was sent clear by a ball over the top, forcing Ramsdale to dash out of his area and meet the Hammers forward with a forceful, probably reckless, tackle.
While there did not look to be any contact, Bowen – travelling at speed – needed to take evasive action and he lost balance and fell. Dean, bizarrely, booked him for diving.
And soon after, Arsenal were back in front.
Mikel Arteta celebrates Arsenal earning all three pointsCredit: AFP
Saka cut in from the right and had a shot pushed away from the near post by an alert Fabianski.
The England man’s resulting corner was cleared only as far as Gabriel Martinelli, who crossed for his unmarked defensive namesake to score with a diving header at the far post.
There was a VAR check for Holding’s robust attempt at meeting the corner but Simon Hooper was unmoved across town at Stockley Park.
Twice, Nketiah could have killed off the Hammers. First he raced on to a long pass from Mo Elneny but sent a curling shot just wide. Then he latched on to a Coufal error and forced a decent save from Fabianski.
Nketiah was booked for impeding the taking of a West Ham free-kick, leading to Rice bawling in his face at length.
Arsenal had frustrated Rice and his men to distraction. Arteta seems to have convinced them that nice guys come second.