This season has been a rollercoaster and I’ve enjoyed the ride. A 5-match road winning streak led to three nearly unthinkable losses in a row to then follow it up with wins over Chelsea and Manchester United. This Arsenal side is young, entertaining, and unpredictable. Mikel Arteta has earned another season in charge as he and Edu rebuild the squad in pursuit of reestablishing Champions League football. But now with control back in their hands will the Gunners respond differently than before? Can Nketiah’s recent form and the return of Takehiro Tomiyasu see them through this next London derby?
West Ham has been living two different lives over the past month or so. In the Europa League, they’ve had a comeback against Sevilla, blown away Lyon in the second leg of that series, and now are set for the semi-finals on Thursday. Meanwhile, in the Premier League, it's been another story. Losses to Tottenham, Brentford, and Chelsea, plus a 1-1 draw against Burnley have seen any chance of pursuing fourth place vanish in the last five matches. The Arsenal match sits right in the middle of much more important Europa League fixtures, so how might that impact their approach to the game?
We’ve called upon the West Ham Way USA podcast’s Brawley Darbon to catch us up on all things West Ham ahead of this weekend’s fixture. When these two sides last met back in December they were still in the midst of the fourth-place battle. Here is the Q&A from the reverse fixture if you care to look back.
TSF: West Ham has seen off Dinamo Zagreb, Sevilla, and Lyon to reach the Europa League semi-finals where they will now face Eintracht Frankfurt, the side that eliminated Barcelona. First of all, how surreal does that sentence sound or would it have sounded to you last summer? And second, how do you rate their chances of winning it all?
WHWP: It’s definitely something I never thought I’d hear in my lifetime. I mean West Ham United are in a European Semi-final. That still doesn’t seem real to me. I thought there was a chance we’d get out of the group when the groups were drawn. Maybe win a knockout round. But realistically, never thought we’d reach the semis! As for winning it all, we’ve got as good a chance as anyone. We’ve avoided Barcelona somehow, and with us knocking out serial winners Sevilla and Champions League regulars, Lyon, we certainly fear no one, and rightfully so!
TSF: Given their place in the semi-finals, and now after the Chelsea loss all but ended their top 4 chances, will David Moyes makes the EL the prime focus?
WHWP: The Europa League has been a priority all season long. We’ve won 3 out of 10 games after our European midweek games. After signing nobody in January, I think most WHU fans wrote off top four right then and there. But to be fair, most of us probably wrote off the Europa League then as well, and we’ve got a real shot at making the final. I think after our defeat to Brentford in early April, we all finally realized Europa is truly the only focus we’ve got at the minute.
TSF: Of course, there has to be a question on Declan Rice. Since we last spoke his value has only increased as have the likely desires from teams higher up the table to pry him away. Give us the latest on his status and where you think he will be playing come August.
WHWP: Declan Rice is priceless to West Ham. Truly priceless. I think if you asked me to give a number we’d consider selling at, I’d say £125-150m easily. That will seem outrageous to everyone outside of the club, but he’s honestly worth more than that to us as a team. I think if we don’t win the Europa League and fail to qualify for the Champions League, he’s more than likely gone in the summer. I just hope he goes to a winning club like City or Liverpool in the PL or Real Madrid/Barca/Bayern where he’ll challenge for trophies on a regular basis, rather than Man United where the club is an absolute mess. If we deliver Champions League football in 2022/23, I believe he’ll be wearing the Claret and Blue for at least one more season!
TSF: David Moyes has done a great job the last few years, no denying that. But it feels like he’s getting the absolute most out of his players. How do they take the next step to push out of the EL spots and really challenge for the CL spots? Is that something you think the club can even do?
WHWP: It’s going to take some serious investment for us to really challenge the top 4. I can’t believe as of 27/04/2022 we’re still only 8 points outside of a top 4 place! With this squad, I really think that’s quite remarkable. I don’t think we’re ready to be a top 4 regular challenger. If we lose Rice and don’t invest, I really fear we may fall back into the pits of mediocrity. I really hope that’s not the case, but given the £0m investment in January when we were on the cusp of really something great in the PL, I just hope the owners really back the manager.
TSF: Where does the club need to focus during the summer transfer window?
WHWP: Striker and CB are the two most important positions we need to address. We’ve not had a single senior striker at the club since Haller left 3 windows ago. As well as Antonio has performed at striker this year, I still don’t see him as a natural striker. We need a minimum of 2 strikers through the door asap. CB is a funny spot for us. We do have 4 capable quality players at that spot, but they’ve all been injured / suspended at some point this year. Ogbonna and Zouma are a quality top pairing, but they’ve both picked up massive injuries and left Craig Dawson to be the unsung hero this year, but he’s been playing hurt for a majority of the season and he’s going to be suspended against Arsenal. We will quite literally have 0 fit and available senior centre backs to play against the Gunners. I expect Arsenal to really attack the makeshift backline this weekend.
TSF: There are reports of issues between Tomas Soucek and either the club and/or the manager. Given the pursuit of Rice, how critical is it that West Ham can resolve any issues with Soucek this summer?
WHWP: Soucek has been a funny one this year. Hasn’t been as good as his previous two years. Possibly down to the fact we’ve given Declan such a free role this season, but he’s also seemed to lack composure on the ball and not been nearly as clinical as seasons gone by. While I think he’s a good player, I think we shouldn’t be held hostage by Soucek’s agent. I’d like to see him stay with us, but again, Rice is the priority!
TSF: It’s been 10 goals & 10 assists for Michail Antonio so far this season. But now at 32, will West Ham look to shift more towards Jarrod Bowen next year, or do you believe Antonio can continue at this pace for the remaining two years on his current deal?
WHWP: I think Antonio’s best seasons are behind him. It’s definitely time to get him some competition at centre forward and ideally we can bring him off the bench most weeks to terrorize tired defenders! We’ve relied on Antonio for far too long.
TSF: Who is an under-the-radar player, either currently at the club, on loan, or with their U23 side, that you believe could make an impact for West Ham next season?
WHWP: I think the player I’m expecting big things out of would be Conor Coventry. He’s a CDM who could be the perfect replacement for Noble who’s retiring at seasons end. He’s currently on loan at MK Dons where he seems to be given MOTM on a regular basis. I’d like to see him play over Soucek in some games next season! That’s how highly I rate the kid.
TSF: With an injury crisis at center back for West Ham, what formation should Arsenal expect them to use in this match, and who is in your predicted starting XI?
WHWP: To be honest I have NO CLUE as to what we’ll do against Arsenal formation wise. We have to play Frankfurt Thursday and if we come through that injury free, I still think we rotate heavily. If I had to guess, we will line up in a 5-4-1 and try to play for a draw but I have no idea what we will do with the lineup or formation!
TSF: And finally, give us your prediction for how the match will go.
WHWP: I expect very little from this game. Arsenal always seem to beat us even when we’re fully healthy and play our best football. We’ve been massively unlucky against Arsenal these past 3 years and I don’t see that changing, especially after we play in Europe. I’m going 3-0 Arsenal and if I’m honest I think that’s being optimistic!
Thanks to Brawley and the West Ham Way USA Podcast.