The briefest of respites for the players and the week continues with another London derby. As much as Arsenal have fared poorly in recent years against Chelsea, they have enjoyed the trips to the East End, losing only once at Upton Park this century. Using that timescale makes the record seem more impressive than once in the last dozen meetings at the home of West Ham. Whatever the case, if Arsène was looking a fixture which might provide a fillip after Christmas dinner has lain heavily across digestive tracts, this one would feature prominently in that list.
A win would do wonders for the morale of the squad. Having spent the build-up to the Chelsea match convincing the world that the belief had not been affected by the run of three games without a win, he changed tack following Monday’s draw by noting that confidence was not helped by a fourth game since the last three points were taken. Getting back on track is all about the result and with the number of changes to the side I would expect today, any notion of a smooth, domineering performance should be pushed firmly to the back of everyone’s mind. Frankly it doesn’t matter if the winning goal enters the West Ham net having taken a massive deflection from the referee’s backside. Indeed, following Mike Dean’s performance at The Emirates, some might argue that Arsenal are due a helping hand from the officials.
Having made no use of substitutes earlier in the week, Arsène will rotate the side. The decision not, for instance, to swap Cazorla for Walcott suggests the manager was already looking ahead to this match and it would be little surprise to see the Spaniard drop into the side at the expense of Özil. Wenger probably remembered the performance his midfield dynamo produced in the corresponding fixture, believing he will thrive in the space that the porous West Ham defence offers to visitors. There is no pressure on Arsenal but Everton, Chelsea and Manchester City have all left Upton Park having scored three times whilst United and Liverpool have punished lax defending with a combined tally of seven goals. The only side in the top eight that the ‘Appy ‘Ammers like playing is Tottenham, contributing in no small part to the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas with two wins at White Hart Lane this season.
Despite the good fortune enjoyed at the expense of those at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters, the spectre of relegation sits uncomfortably in West Ham’s view. The failure to win any Premier League matches in December – a solitary point against Sunderland their only reward – has left them one place and point ahead of Crystal Palace and Fulham. Given that four of the bottom five have changed managers in recent months, Sam Allardyce must be quietly nervous at befalling the same fate. Whether his future depends on the result today remains to be seen but with both Palace and Fulham away, that seems unlikely.
That is irrelevant for Arsenal’s quest for three points. In all likelihood, a win today will see them return to the top of the table with Liverpool travelling to Eastlands for the evening kick-off. It is hard to see them coming away with anything other than a defeat, their recent run of thrashing the smaller clubs sets them out as nothing more than flat-track bullies. The same could be levelled at Arsenal; failing to win the big matches opens all manner of criticism in that respect yet win the big matches and you won’t win the title. It is perfectly possible to be crowned champions without winning many – any – of the top six encounters. Hard but not impossible. For Arsenal, going into the New Year top of the Premier League would be a significant improvement on the same time last year and the mood ought to be better considering the change in circumstance. You know there is a ‘but’ coming; but it will mean nothing if the final placing in May is still a distant fourth.
Looking to this afternoon’s line-up, the scope for change is small in defence with Laurent Koscielny surely not having recovered from the gash in his knee suffered at City. Whether the manager goes with Nacho Monreal will be interesting. Isolated in that drubbing, today would be a good place to recover confidence if it has been knocked. Newcastle’s attack is pacier than West Ham’s and the Spaniard might have a more favourable afternoon in East London than the North East. However, that must be weighed against continuity in a defence would proved durable against Chelsea. It will be midfield where most changes will occur. Tomas Rosicky may be on course to play 25 games this season and sign a new contract but it doesn’t seem likely he will play two matches in a row, particularly in view of the exemplary effort he produced on Monday. A similar view may be taken of Mikel Arteta yet I do not think that Wenger is inclined to rest the Spaniard but will pair him with Mathieu Flamini in the centre. Elsewhere, the decision is whether Podolski and/or Cazorla is preferred to Özil and Walcott. I have a feeling both will start with Walcott introduced as a substitute when Podolski’s lack of match sharpness takes its toll.
That would leave the line-up as:
Szczesny; Sagna, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Monreal; Ramsey, Arteta, Flamini; Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski
A win, irrespective of how well the team plays, is important. Going into the New Year on the back of rotten form may allow doubts to creep in, dent self-belief. The squad has worked hard to turn things around and produce a level of consistency which is reaping some reward. Getting back to that level quickly after a run of difficult opponents must start soon and this afternoon is as good a time as any to start.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.