When I woke up this morning,
It was raining
Yeah, it was pouring again
Still I think the birds were singing
I couldn’t hear them through the din
Couldn’t hear them
Will you send me a picture, so I can remember?
Will you send me a picture, so I can?
- Superchunk, “Iron On”
These lyrics by the standout 90’s group Superchunk might well depict Arsenal’s visit to West Ham on Saturday.
It’ll be the Gunners’ last match at West Ham’s Boleyn Ground, and they may want a picture to remember the site of some favorable results before the Irons’ (get it?) decamp to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 Premier League season. And spring might well bring inclement weather for the kickoff just after noon local time.
But the strongest connection for me is the potential of birds singing amidst the din, the birdsong being a stylish Arsenal performance drowned out by the noise of supporter dissatisfaction. The remoteness of Arsenal’s chances of winning the Premier League dominates the story, while moments of beauty and discrete accomplishments get ignored.
A dominant display by the Gunners on Saturday might level those two narrative hooks.
One reason is that West Ham are a formidable opponent, especially at home. The Irons have not lost in their last 13 matches in Upton Park and sit sixth in the table, just three points off a Champions League spot.
Knocking off West Ham at home will be a sign that Arsenal are capable of winning their remaining six matches. That’s likely to be the only hope Arsenal have of catching league leaders Leicester City.
Another reason the aesthetics of the match might receive more attention after Saturday is the confirmation such a performance would give this particular Arsenal side. After the creditable showing at Barcelona, the controlled performance to beat Everton 2-0, and the dominant 4-0 home win over Watford, a victory over West Ham would show that manager Arsène Wenger has aligned the players, structure, and style.
Indeed, Wenger has revealed that he’s loathe to mess with the current mix, telling his pre-match press conference that
I’m always reluctant to change what works. [It is] down to the confidence gained from our last two games. Team play has improved in those games and our game is based on mobility, speed and technique. We have found a good balance in our game.
Critical in this discovery has been the work of Mohammed Elneny in midfield. The newest Arsenal player, the Egyptian has enhanced the flow of the attack while supporting the defense. He completed 122 passes against Watford, the highest number in the League this season, 36 of them to playmaker Mesut Özil, according to FourFourTwo StatsZone. That means that Elneny was able to move the ball efficiently and with regularity to the man Arsenal want to have it.
Despite their strong record, West Ham look vulnerable to the quick, effective passing and movement that Elneny, Danny Welbeck, and Alex Iwobi have brought to Arsenal’s starting lineup. The Irons’ defense was sloppy last week against Crystal Palace, and their fullbacks’ predilection for attack left central defenders Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna exposed.
Welbeck and Alexis can exploit those gaps, and Özil and Iwobi will find their teammates if they’re free.
This won’t be a simple task, because West Ham manager Slaven Bilic has no doubt recognized this threat and drilled his charges to limit it. He can also summon the memory of the Irons’ opening-day victory at the Emirates and inspire his team to repeat that performance for the home crowd.
So expect each team’s game plan to be similar to the ones that day, with Arsenal trying to bamboozle their opponents with quick passing and movement and West Ham trying to thwart those efforts. The outcome will rest on the execution.
Mesut Özil against Cheikhou Kouyaté. Arsenal’s pass master hasn’t provided an assist in four league matches, during which Arsenal have scored 10 goals. To inch closer to the league record of 20, Özil will have to evade the attentions of Kouyaté, who received a reprieve when the FA rescinded the red card he received last week.
Where to Worry
This is perhaps the Premier League’s easiest scouting report: Don’t give West Ham free kicks anywhere near the Arsenal area. Dimitri Payet is a wizard with direct free kicks, having scored two stunning ones for West Ham and France in recent weeks. And we witnessed in the season opener the danger West Ham poses on free kicks sent into the box. One goal came in this scenario, while the second came after Arsenal failed to clear a free kick properly.
A nervy affair in a tight, febrile atmosphere hinges on the first goal. If Arsenal can get ahead, West Ham will struggle in open play.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Alex Iwobi. The youngster has made a significant mark in his first two Premier League starts, providing the team’s second goal in both. He’ll have the opportunity to contribute again because West Ham’s right back, Michail Antonio, is a wide midfielder by trade and therefore doesn’t always defend diligently.
West Ham. Mark Noble. It might seem odd to emphasize the workmanlike West Ham midfielder when Payet is capable of such sumptuous free kicks, but Noble has the responsibility to hold down the midfield. If he and Kouyaté can keep Arsenal’s attack from flowing through that area, they’ll give their team the advantage.