West Ham are faced with a great opportunity against an Arsenal side plagued by poor form. The Gunners have struggled this season, but they as any West Ham fan would agree, they aren't the only ones. It's a crucial match for the Irons, who can't afford to be dragged into the relegation battle again. This match could be the points needed to guarantee a mid table finish.
This London derby will see two clubs in turmoil face one another. Arsenal look set to keep their manager and lose their best player over the summer, an ominous a prediction that has brought the Anti-Wenger brigade out in full force. Meanwhile, West Ham are facing a murky future as well, with Bilic rumored to be on his way out, and a multitude of players potentially following him.
It is with this backdrop of chaos that Arsenal and West Ham prepare to do battle at the Emirates Stadium.
To borrow a line from Gerald Ford, the state of Arsenal is not good. It's been a long and painful fall from the brilliance of The Invincibles, but changing times and changing finances have turned Arsenal from the envy of the world to a team locked in perennial mediocrity. The mantra of good enough has overtaken the team, as the manager and board settle for decent players and acceptable finishes.
Arsenal are, in a sense, Schrödinger's team, existing at once as one of the biggest teams in the world and yet never actually doing anything that big. It's been a long and arduous ride for Arsene Wenger, the tactical and technical genius who reinvented football as we know it. The Frenchman was once a wizard, creating exceptional teams out of bargain buys. Even in his current, tired state, Wenger has managed to take a distinctly unimpressive side to the champions league year after year. While Arsenal fans often try to argue otherwise, the truth is, this is, outside of a few players, a wildly average side.
Arsenal have become a team that never shoots higher than Chmpions League qualification. It is not totally the fault of Wenger. The blame doesn’t lie exclusively with the players. Even the long lambasted owners do not deserve exclusive hatred. The truth is, this is a situation of nuance. Much like at West Ham, blame cannot logically be assigned exclusively to one group.
With the big picture news out of the way, we can move into the specifics of Arsenal’s team against West Ham. The big news is that David Ospina, deputizing for Petr Cech, has himself picked up an injury. He is listed as doubtful, which would force youngster Emiliano Martinez into the lineup. The Argentinian has only played 11 games for the club. Last season, he joined Wolverhampton Wanderers on loan and featured 15 times for the championship club.
The goalkeeping position isn’t the only spot of worry. As ever, Arsenal have many injuries to deal with. Laurent Koscielny left the Manchester City game at halftime, and won’t be able to recover in time. That leaves a position open for the returning Per Mertesacker.
Michail Antonio will return after suffering a hamstring injury. Andy Carroll is certain to start up front, while Andre Ayew and Manuel Lanzini will probably continue, having significantly outperformed Sofiane Feghouli and Robert Snodgrass. The real question is what formation Bilic will choose to use. Considering the team's struggles in midfield, it’s possible that West Ham will set up in a 4-3-3, pushing Lanzini out wide and vacating the number 10 position.
Should Bilic instead choose to set up with 3 attacking midfielders, or decide to continue with Lanzini in central midfield, one of Snodgrass or Feghouli will be given a chance. Frankly, on current form, neither option is truly appealing. Snodgrass has been a severe disappointment since joining the club, while Feghouli has been consistently misutilized.
West Ham’s stumbling, stuttering form has been in large part due to a total lack of systematic consistency, and as such, it is virtually impossible to predict how the team will set up. Formations are constantly shuffled and lineups are changed by form and injuries. With that said, the front four of Carroll backed by Ayew, Lanzini and Antonio seems most likely.
Again, nobody really knows what West Ham’s best lineup in this area looks like. With Pedro Obiang out injured long term, Mark Noble looks set to return to the side, fitness permitting. Cheikhou Kouyate will probably continue in his preferred defensive midfield position. However, there are half a dozen other possibilities for this lineup.
The first big question is how many people play in midfield. Two? Two and an attacking midfielder? Three? Perhaps even a midfield diamond? All of these possibilities are entirely possible, and frankly, a strong argument could be made for any of them. As it stands, the most likely option is that Bilic sticks with Kouyate but brings back our club's captain.
Another option is bringing in Havard Nordtveit, who hasn’t really been given a chance to shine in his preferred central midfield position. The argument for the Norwegian is an intriguing one. While the former Arsenal youngster has undeniably struggled with West Ham, the club would be remiss to write him off this quickly. Nordtveit was a consistent performer for Borussia Monchengladbach, fitting in well alongside Granit Xhaka. Nordtveit is actual capable of playing a similar role to Pedro Obiang, and a three man midfield with Kouyate behind and Noble alongside him has the potential to work effectively.
Sam Byram is the only option the club has at right back. As such, he will probably continue to start. On the opposite flank, Aaron Cresswell was subbed off with an injury. The Englishman has shown all the defensive nous of a traffic cone for large stretches of the season, but his replacement Arthur Masuaku has also struggled. As it stands, the wide defensive positions will be areas of extreme vulnerability for West Ham, which is bad news given that Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott are the two standouts for Arsenal this year.
In the backline, James Collins and Jose Fonte will probably play together, unless Bilic decides to pull something really weird. The big question is whether West ham play with three at the back by drawing Kouyate into defense.
Prediction: West Ham 2-4 Arsenal
The Gunners are struggling, but their individual quality is simply overwhelming. The unfortunate truth is that West Ham cannot compete man for man with them in any position. While impressive results over the past several years have shown that West ham are capable of troubling Arsenal, this game looks beyond the Irons.