The only consistent thing about West Ham’s play this season has been their inconsistency but you can be sure they’ll find some sort of form for the visit of Arsenal today.
After last season’s uncharacteristic show of ability, the Hammers have returned to something like normality this season, showing patches of cohesive play, and stretches of true ineptitude to match.
Under normal circumstances, and even away from home, Arsenal would be well placed to exploit the defensive deficiencies of Slaven Billic’s side – but this is an Arsenal side equally struggling to find any sort of rhythm.
One of the major positives for Arsenal to focus on is West Ham’s inability to keep a clean sheet, with the East Londoners having conceded 24 goals in 13 matches. Only three teams have conceded more.
Add to that the fact that the Hammers have not won in the league since October 22, and a stadium in which they have struggled to find their feet, and there are reasons to be cheerful.
But Billic is no fool and would doubtless have watched closely the tapes from Arsenal’s recent exploits, in which they have really struggled to create chances in the way Gunners fans have become so used to.
Their efficiency in front of goal has masked a real lack of creativity, and it would be fair to say that Arsenal have been ponderous and lethargic in areas of the pitch where they normally dominate.
I have no doubt that Billic will set his side up to frustrate and to spoil Arsenal. He won’t want to give our midfield the time or space to find any sort of fluidity and I expect there to be plenty of strong tackles and physicality today.
He will also draw on the match at Upton Park last season, in which perennial pain-in-the-arse Andy Carroll made a mockery of our defence by managing to get on the end of every cross that came within 20 yards of the box. We must be alert to a similar aerial threat this time out.
If, as they have done for the last six weeks or so, Arsenal go into retreat – followed by a cycle of regressive, tepid passing – they will be overawed and will probably slip to a first defeat in the league since August.
They must meet the challenge head on. They must be prepared to mix it with the Hammers and they must show the sort of ambition that seems to have deserted them.
Arsene Wenger has been striving to find the right balance in his side since the loss of Santi Cazorla and there is no better time for him to finally discover the right solution. With Chelsea and Manchester City facing off in the early kick off, today’s match represents a great chance to make up some ground on the league leaders and keep ourselves in contention heading into the busy festive period.
For me, I’d like to see Granit Xhaka start this afternoon, either alongside Francis Coquelin or Aaron Ramsey. Xhaka’s range of passing and incisiveness makes him, in my eyes at least, the nearest thing we have to Cazorla in the latter’s absence and god knows we have lacked some attacking intent of late.
The only other real dilemma facing Arsene is who to select at right back. Carl Jenkinson is clearly suffering a crisis of confidence and, should he start, will almost certainly find himself a target for the majority of Hammers’ attacks. Playing him would be both a show of faith and a real sink or swim moment.
I think the general consensus is that Gabriel will continue in the berth he occupied against Bournemouth, a match in which he acquitted himself well. Whether he has the positional sense, concentration and attacking ability to go the full 90 at right back is something of a gamble, but the Brazilian is not one so easily intimidated and pressured as Jenkinson seems to be.
Either way, I have no doubt that area of the pitch will be a focal point for West Ham so Theo Walcott, if he starts on the right, must make sure that he is tracking back and stopping crosses as often as he is getting forward.
All things considered, the outcome of this one is difficult to call. At the moment, you just don’t know what you are going to get from Arsenal, so how they set the tone and acquit themselves in the first 15-20 minutes will tell you all you need to know about the rest of the match.
They have suffered in the last month with some absolutely awful first-half performances and they cannot keep getting away with it. Today they must start showing signs of progress.