West Ham are in appallingly bad form in the Premier League so, naturally, they are perfectly poised to produce the performance of the season when they arrive at the Emirates tonight.
Arsenal are by no means in good form themselves – or anything closely resembling it – but there really is no excuse for not turning in a performance against a team as spectacularly erratic as Slaven Billic’s West Ham, who have lost four of their last five in the league and have slipped to 14th place.
When the two teams met back in December, Arsenal ran out convincing 5-1 winners in a game that had many fans hoping this might be a season in which we could mount a serious title challenge.
Of course, events have soured spectacularly since then but there is still plenty for Arsenal to play for, especially given the seven-point gap that separates them from the Premier League’s top four promised land, stuffed as it is with cash and kudos.
The first tentative signs of recovery where in evidence against Manchester City on Sunday but, in all honesty, there can be no time for small steps at this stage of this season. Arsene Wenger’s men simply can not afford to drop any more points in the matches that remain, least of all against a team as poor as West Ham.
The Gunners will need to take the positives from the weekend’s 2-2 draw against City and build on them, and quickly. If West Ham are put under pressure, they are likely to crumble into submission without too much fuss. If they are given cause for hope, however, and allowed to get a few crosses into the Arsenal box early on, the Gunners’ fragile confidence is just as likely to desert them.
First and foremost, we have to cut out the early goals. We have conceded an absolute slew of soft goals in the opening stages in recent weeks and, with the exception of the City match, every one has proved costly for Wenger’s men.
However much Arsene prefers to focus on the attacking intricacies of the game, he cannot ignore the fact that sustainable success is often built on a solid defence and we have been anything but solid for quite a large chunk of this season.
That task becomes arguably much more difficult without Laurent Koscielny, Petr Cech and David Ospina to call upon but if there was ever a chance for the likes of Emi Martinez, Gabriel, and Rob Holding to stake a claim for more game time, this is undoubtedly it.
Their work is going to be cut out for them however, as Andy Carroll – that detestable mass of flesh that masquerades as a footballer – is certain to start and equally as certain to cause us no end of problems at the back.
Billic may have had a stinker of season to date but he is no mug. He will instruct his players to get the ball high and handsome at every opportunity and I have no doubt they will do that regularly.
As Arsene Wenger said, the best way to stop Carroll posing a threat, and collecting those high balls, is to play in West Ham’s half but it won’t be as easy as that. Like it or not, the Hammers are going to get their opportunities and we have to be sharp and alert from the outset so that a fairly routine task doesn’t become a fiendishly difficult one. That means no crosses in the final third and no silly free-kicks.
There was some suggestion from the manager that both Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey stood in contention for a recall to the team for tonight’s match, but I’m not sure I would be tempted to rush either back.
In truth, only Chamberlain would be in contention for a starting berth but I see no issue with continuing with the same side that started against Manchester City, with the exception of Koscielny, of course.
Unlike against Pep Guardiola’s men, I think our creative players will find themselves a few more opportunities to exploit and perhaps even spaces to wander in to. What will determine success from failure on the night will be the quality of our finishing.
We were remarkably efficient in front of goal on Sunday and, if we can convert at a similar rate tonight, we should be well placed to pick up some much-needed points, particularly as both Everton and Manchester United played out a draw last night.
With this current Arsenal team, however, the only certainty is uncertainty.