Arsenal – West Ham United — Match Preview
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How does Arsenal follow up on the tasty 2-1 victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup Quarter-finals at Old Trafford? Will there be a let down after that emotional win–our first in almost a decade up there–or will it serve to galvanize our focus and get players and team fully motivated for what can be accomplished in the competitions ahead?
It’s only March, so the battle for places in the league is still on and anything can happen as maybe that team leading in the standings can attest. For once the sky is NOT falling in North London. On the South side, however, between racist chants and conspiracies that ALL are out to get them, the horizon has dropped a notch. For Chelsea, playing with an extra man and an away goal for an hour was simply not enough. Even when they got their (soft) penalty in extra time, they couldn’t close the deal. The “best” team in England already out of the Champions League has led to many with long faces. Not mine…
Before Gooners get too happy, however, we should note that crashes of this variety happen in our sport all the time. We should also register that they had to feel confident going into the return match with Paris St. Germain after grinding out a 1-nil victory in East London against our next opponent, West Ham United. Were they perhaps overconfident? Who knows? All I know is that Arsenal must avoid a similar complacency. Instead, we must use the confidence gained from winning at Old Trafford but take what was witnessed at Stamford Bridge in midweek to redouble our focus for this next one and use it to our advantage. Yes, Chelsea still have a 9 point lead (and a game in hand) and Manchester City still a 4 point gap over us for the top two places in the league, but now, more than ever, is a time to keep the pressure on.
We really must, because if we look below us in the table, our hold on 3rd place (the final Champions league spot not requiring an August playoff) is by only the narrowest of margins–a single point. The club we just beat sits 4th (and out of all other competitions), local rivals Tottenham sit just one behind them and will have a similarly cleared schedule, while Liverpool, the current form club in the league, is only one more back. Cock up against the Hammers and all the fun this week has provided goes right out the window.
Another reason a lapse cannot be afforded is because of the enormity of the task facing us in the midweek ahead. Somehow Arsenal have to reverse a 3-1 deficit when they travel to Monaco next Tuesday. We can only play the matches one at a time, of course, but a composed performance vs the Hammers–yet one which hones our multiple weapons in attack–would be just what the doctor (not to mention the priests, shamans, poets and philosophers) might order to create a sense of belief that something good might be possible down on the Cote d’Azur.
West Ham cannot, however, be taken too lightly. They are having a fine season under manager Sam Allardyce and have proven themselves a very dangerous team to look past. In particular they are no pushovers against the (so-called) top clubs. They took full points from Manchester City in the Autumn and in more recent weeks have shared points in matches with Southampton, Manchester United and Tottenham. As mentioned above, they pushed Chelsea for ninety plus minutes, only losing by the single goal. Although they may feel very comfortable in 10th position–with no danger of dropping off the first page of the table this weekend being 4 points clear of Newcastle–Big Sam has made his reputation scrapping for every available point.
He’s certainly not everybody’s cup of tea and not a few East End bubble blowers are tiring of Allardyce’s pragmatism, even if it has been a particularly effective technique for exposing the soft underbelly in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams over the years. We saw plenty of floated balls to big targets when we played them at Upton Park in Late December and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Route One football on Saturday. The Hammers, however, will be without big men Andy Carroll and Carlton Cole for this one, so Allardyce may be forced into a slightly less aerially oriented game even if his approach will likely still rely upon power and speed and using the full width of our pitch. Even that approach will be hampered by not being able to use our own loanee, Carl Jenkinson, at right back. As much as Wenger believes the loan rules are just another way the richer clubs are favoured, Jenks has been having a strong enough season with the Hammers that the manager will happily accept the advantage.
Wenger has no such power over another ex-Gunner, Alex Song, on loan from Barcelona. The acquisition of Song was considered one of the best moves of the Summer and many Gooners, given our weakness at the rear of midfield–and the fact that we were looking up at West Ham in the table–during much of the Autumn, thought Wenger might have done well to have taken the Cameroonian back himself. Song’s form in the new year has been hampered by a knee problem and he didn’t feature in the derby vs Chelsea, but Allardyce was coy on whether he’d be available to play against his old club. Still, just as Wenger made a late decision to use Danny Welbeck against his former club in the match at Man United, Allardyce may try to use similar motivation with Song against us. If he does, will we see the smiling Song who often was a little too friendly with opponents for the tastes of many supporters, or will he play with a chip on his shoulder, knowing a big performance against his former club will be noticed by the many who were dismayed by his quick exit from the club two summers ago?
Like our last league opponent, Queens Park Rangers, West Ham, already eliminated from the FA Cup and having a full 10 days between matches, have just returned from a training camp in Dubai. New tactics and partnerships may be the order of the day, some of which will be forced due to injury. My hunch is that, like QPR, they will have drilled more on defending and will not be easy to break down, even if, in addition to Jenkinson at RB, they will also be missing center back Winston Reid who will not quite be recovered in time for this one. Spanish Keeper Adrian, although perhaps not playing to the level of his countryman David De Gea (who kept the scoreline close up at Man U) is a fine shot stopper and a big reason for the Hammers success this year. Arsenal will have to make quality chances and better shots to beat him.
In attack, with Carroll out as a focal point, Diafra Sakho and Stuart Downing are the biggest concerns. Enner Valencia is a player who is unafraid to run with the ball and brings enough pace and trickery to hurt us. Aaron Cresswell, a free running left back, in addition to Downing, can supply the crosses. Cheik Kouyate, Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble add graft to the craft. Even if they’re without their biggest guys, these players bring a good mix of skill, determination and physicality and should not be discounted. We should be especially aware at set pieces.
That’s what got us in the reverse fixture, after all. In that one, Arsenal, as we’ve done several times this season, scored two first half goals in quick succession (Santi Cazorla, from the spot after winning a penalty, and Danny Welbeck bundling in a rocketed low cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) but then conceded from a corner (eventually scored by Kouyate after an initial header from James Tompkins) to set up a nervous finish.
There will be changes from that one and from the emotional Cup victory at ManU. Wojciech Szczesny, even though his height might be a real weapon if West Ham revert to the lofted balls, will likely return to the bench in favor of David Ospina. Wenger, I think, might compensate by using fullbacks–Calum Chambers and Nacho Monreal–who have done time at center back, rather than pacier options, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs. Francis Coquelin, our revelation at defensive mid, surely anchors the rearguard, and will play ahead of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, our only fit CBs.
The more difficult choices revolve around what Wenger will do up front and in attacking midfield. This might be a spot for Theo Walcott to finally get a start as his explosive pace might help keep the Hammers honest and worried about committing too many men forward. Does Olivier Giroud come back at Center Forward or does Danny Welbeck get a reward for the great solo effort for the game winner he pounced upon at Old Trafford? Additionally, does Wenger believe he can rest any (or all) of the outstanding threesome at the heart of our team: Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil? Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky have been playing well themselves and it would not be a drop in quality if either of them started. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will certainly miss this one, even if a scan on the injured hamstring which forced him off early in the ManU match suggests he’ll be back soon. Even Mathieu Flamini could feature as he’s been passed fit. Jack Wilshere probably won’t be ready after minor surgery. Here then is my best guess for the starting 11, but I feel far from confident putting it out there.
(Subs: Szczesny, Gibbs, Bellerin, Flamini, Rosicky, Ramsey, Alexis)
Other would-be-managers might see (very) different line-ups. What would be yours? Is this a chance to rotate and rest ahead of the immense challenge we face at Monaco? Should we consider that one a dead rubber and just stay focused on our (delicately poised) position in the league? Will West Ham return from their long layoff and their exercises down in Dubai with determination and drive or does their comfortable spot in the table mean that they’ll not be too worried about trying to take points in another tough London derby? In other words, what say you, the babbling (and barking) boys of the Bergkampesque blogosphere?…
The pressure relief from the win at Manchester United has been nice, but it’s time to get back to it…Gunners and Gooners alike. Go on, then…