‘The times they are a-changing” in the Premier League, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal FC don’t seem to have moved one inch from what they have been doing every season — qualify for the Champions League.
While they were expected to challenge for the title with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea FC out of their way this season, the Gunners have fallen short yet again, and now seem to be settling for a third placed finish, 11 points adrift of current league leaders and last season’s relegation survivors Leicester City.
West Ham United and Manchester United are knocking on the top-four door this season, but the Gunners seem to be safe from their clutches — for now. As they prepare for their trip to Upton Park, there is a sense of unease among the Gunners with the general feeling that teams like West Ham and Stoke City are finally catching up with the Premier League giants. Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur seem to have already done that.
Meanwhile for West Ham, this match represents a brilliant opportunity for them to prove they are good enough to take over from the traditional giants of the league and challenge for the big money that Champions League football has to offer.
Slaven Bilic vs Arsene Wenger
The two managers have faced off just once in the Premier League before this, and it was Bilic who surprisingly came out on top with a convincing 2-0 win at the Emirates Stadium. In fact, one may even go on to say that the scoreline slightly flattered Arsenal, as West Ham could have won by a bigger margin.
The Gunners had superior possession to West Ham in that game, but that suited the Hammers’ counter attacking style of play, with Dimitri Payet at the heart of their midfield.
Possible fixture congestion up ahead for Bilic
While Bilic may not be too worried about injuries in his squad right now, the Croat will be looking at the calendar as there is a possibility that his team will have to play five matches in two weeks time. If they win the midweek FA Cup quarter final replay against Manchester United, the Hammers will have a very busy period ahead and the manager will have to switch things around.
Otherwise, they will be solely focused on the Premier League, with Champions League qualification up for grabs. He will need to keep the likes of Dimitri Payet, Cheikhou Kouyate, Mark Noble, Angelo Ogbonna, and Diafra Sakho fit in order to come out of these two weeks with positive results.
Wenger warily looking over his shoulders
While the Frenchman still maintains that Leicester City could slip up any second, and his team will be ready to cut their lead down, a difference of 11 points might just turn out to be too big a deficit to overturn with seven matches still to go — despite the fact that Arsenal have played one game less.
Wenger and his men will need to stop West Ham’s star man Dimitri Payet, who has proven to be a consistent performer this season. The Frenchman recently admitted that he was scouting Payet, but did not sign the players since he already had quite a few similar players.
Angelo Ogbonna vs Danny Welbeck
Welbeck’s return from injury has been a huge boon for Wenger who previously had only Olivier Giroud as his striker. The 25-year-old has already scored three goals in his four Premier League appearances for the Gunners since coming back, and will be looking to use his pace to get the better of the West Ham defence.
On the other hand, Ogbonna, who has been a key presence in the Hammers’ backline, will be the one tasked with stopping Welbeck. The Italian defender will not have any problems with dealing with Welbeck’s blistering pace, as he himself is quite fleet footed on the pitch. However, the England international has the habit of popping up in goal-scoring areas, and that is something Ogbonna needs to be wary of.
Mark Noble vs. Mesut Ozil
Noble has been the unsung hero for West Ham this season. While he had shown a lot of promise as a creative midfielder in his earlier days, the Englishman has excelled in the role of the holding midfielder for West Ham. Noble has adapted well to his new role, sitting back and giving the likes of Payet and Kouyate the freedom to run riot upfield.
However, Noble will have to be even more mindful of his defensive duties, as he will have to stop the ever so brilliant Mesut Ozil. The German currently leads the assists charts in the Premier League, having set up 18 goals for his teammates. He will be the creator-in-chief for his teammates, and Noble will have to bring his A-Game to the pitch in order to stop him.
Dimitri Payet vs Francis Coquelin
Payet has been one of the finds of the season so far, with the Frenchman almost single-handedly carrying the Hammers to contention for one of the top four spots in the Premier League. West Ham have benefited a lot from his creativity and vision from the middle of the park, with Payet providing nine assists and scoring as many goals in the Premier League so far.
Francis Coquelin has also been a revelation of sorts for the Gunners, who seem to have a proper defensive midfielder for the first time since Alex Song left for Barcelona. Ironically, the Cameroon international is mostly warming the benches at West Ham these days. Coquelin has been a proper destroyer in the middle of the park, and that is one aspect that Wenger will be looking to use in order to stop Payet. This will be an interesting battle between two Frenchmen.