Managers Slaven Bilic and Arsene Wenger bring their teams–with confidence teetering–to the Emirates for a Wednesday night clash in a season they both would probably wish to forget. Do these clubs need new men at the helm? Maybe. Maybe Not.
For Arsenal, it’s a question that hovers over everything at the club. Once the ball is kicked off, however, it must be put to one side. Three points are on the line and both teams want them.
Is there anything worse than being a Gooner these days? Maybe not, but imagine life as a supporter of some of the other London clubs? Sure, Chelsea look good for the league title in this, their “bounce-back” season, but their goods are at least somewhat ill-gotten as they come due to the largess of a Russian gas magnate. Spurs look promising too and this could be the year they finally finish ahead of Arsenal. Of course, they should be looking forward and trying to catch the chavs, but too many late-season collapses haunt their memories. We might be looking at both with envy at the moment, but would we really choose to switch places with their supporters, even if we could?
Then there’s West Ham United, the darlings of the East End. Plenty of talent comes through that part of the city offering heady promise, but, inevitably, it goes, and the Hammers find their true level. Are they a mid-table club or one that gets beat up all too regularly and might be happier in the Championship? They’re probably too good for the drop this season–a worry likely fueled by growing pains as they look to make the Olympic stadium their own–but, sitting just 6 points ahead of the relegation places and having lost their last four matches, they cannot feel completely safe just yet.
Arsenal, of course, aren’t in substantially better form and the atmosphere surrounding Wenger’s future makes home matches as difficult as trips away. The draw on Sunday vs Manchester City was better than losing, but the single point taken wasn’t enough to inspire confidence that a Top 4 finish will come our way. Although Wenger has delivered at least that level of accomplishment for 20 years, it’s not enough for many Gooners and some would be fine to see it fall by the wayside if it meant a change at the helm. Fun times.
But why play a match if not to try and win it? Wenger and his players know this and will also know that the table can change quickly if the collective confidence can be turned around and positive results taken. The question is: how best to make it actually happen against the Hammers.
On short rest, just two days off compared to West Ham’s three, Wenger might be tempted to rotate a bit and make a few changes to try and cut out West Ham’s main avenue of attack, their big man up front, Andy Carroll. He scored a consolation goal when we played them in the new stadium back in December and also scored a hat-trick in our final journey out to Upton Park the season before. The Hammers no longer have the dead-ball deliveries of Dimitri Payet, but playing for set-pieces and corners which they can send in toward Carroll will have to be high on the priority list for Bilic. Hitting on the counter will also be a primary tactic and the return of pacy and powerful Michail Antonio to the line-up should help. In Payet’s absence, much of the attack runs through Mario Lanzini, but Andre Ayew is another attacker we cannot afford to forget. (They don’t quite have their hands on Jack Wilshere yet, even if a 30 million pound offer is said to be on the table.) At the back, however, WHU have some issues. Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbanna and Aaron Cresswell are all out injured, another reason the Hammers will likely look to consolidate in that part of the pitch and try to hurt us when we lose the ball, perhaps even inviting us into their half when we’ve got it.
Given the opponent’s weapons and the tactics they might inspire, I think Wenger will change out his center forward from the last two matches, Danny Welbeck, for the big figure of Olivier Giroud. At the back, two changes will be forced. Laurent Koscielny is out with an achilles tendon injury and Emiliano Martinez looks set to replace David Ospina who also took a knock vs City. The taller keeper might help at set pieces and Wenger might be tempted to add even more height and give a first match of the season to our captain, Per Mertesacker. I don’t think Wenger will risk it, especially after Gabriel, Koscielny’s replacement, did such a strong job in the 2nd half of the previous game. As such, here’s my predicted 11:
Substitutes: Macey, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Elneny, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi, Welbeck
Personally, I’d prefer to see Elneny get a run out in central midfield, though many might like to see Oxlade-Chamberlain in one of those spots. Both the Ox and Aaron Ramsey were left out of the squad for the Man City match, but Wenger has hinted that both of them could be available for this one. It’s possible that either (or both) could go straight back into the first 11 if they were simply being rested with an eye to the quick turnaround between fixtures. Who would give way if Wenger tried such a plan? Both Coquelin and Xhaka picked up early yellow cards in the City match and there was widely divergent opinion on how they played under those circumstances. Who knows? Certainly not me. I’m just guessing and, as always, I’m curious what others think. Who will Wenger play and who would you choose if you were in the manager’s shoes?
Those shoes of his are perched on the thinnest of ice, so, regardless of who takes the pitch for the Gunners, this one is a must win. Shaky as our confidence might be, we need to take another step toward restoring it ahead of a pair of Monday night matches at Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough, that, on paper at least, appear winnable. This one looks that way too, but matches aren’t played on paper. They are played on pitches and in stadia.
In fact, a good measure of just such a fallacy might be this fixture last season, which happened to fall on the opening day. Did we believe we only had to show up to take the full points that day? Perhaps. Martin Atkinson was the referee for that one and he gets another go Wednesday night. That match ended in a 2-nil West Ham victory (by way, interestingly enough, of a set piece goal and when the Hammers pounced on a defensive error). Our present form should prevent such overconfidence. We should also know that West Ham, equally desperate for a result, will not roll over for us, so we must make our own fate.
Go on then…