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Arsenal vs West Ham preview: The Declan Derby

Arsenal host West Ham with a chance for the Gunners to reclaim the top spot

Liverpool FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

As 2023 dwindles to a close, Arsenal FC host an ascendant West Ham at the Emirates on Thursday as the Gunners look to close out the calendar year at home with one more London Derby victory before a New Year’s Eve match at Fulham.

The Gunners have well and truly been the class club of London. Last season, the Gunners became the first club to win 10 London Derbies in one season, with an overall record of 10 wins, 2 draws, and 0 losses (although, in fairness, it should have been 13 wins if not for a horrific VAR mistake against Brentford). This season has been slightly less successful with 2 wins and 3 draws already, but they still have yet to lose to another London club since an ill-fated NLD at Spurs in May 2022.

The Hammers would love nothing than to change that. After finding European success last season, they are riding a wave of momentum as December ends, heading into Thursday’s match on the back of successive shut out wins over Wolverhampton and Manchester United and having won three of their last four in the league. They managed to successfully utilize the hefty influx of funds after selling Declan Rice to the Gunners in the summer, adding players like Mohammed Kudus, who has been a break out sensation, Edson Alvarez from Ajax, and former gunner Dinos Mavropanos.

Here are five talking points ahead of Thursday’s match:

Forward Momentum

In April, Arsenal traveled to Anfield and escaped with a nervy draw before facing West Ham in what ended up being a second straight draw that marked the beginning of the end of Arsenal’s title charge. Now, Arsenal once again face West Ham after drawing Liverpool, this time with a chance to claim the league’s top spot at the halfway mark of the season.

When Arsenal left Anfield sharing the points in April, the overall mood was wholly deflating as the Gunners felt like they had undone themselves with errors and a raucous environment. But after last Saturday’s cagey affair with the Reds, the sense is that Arsenal left that match feeling all the more empowered and resolute. Liverpool threw everything they could at the Gunners from the word go as they sought to overtake the visitors at the top of the table, but Arsenal punched them in the mouth first and met intensity with intensity. Now the Gunners need to capitalize on that momentum as they once again face a punchy West Ham, this side having already bested Arsenal once this season in the EFL cup.

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

The Gunners have a three day turnaround between Thursday’s match and their final match of the 2023 calendar year when they travel to face Fulham on Sunday. Arteta made only two substitutions against Liverpool, which means there are bound to be some tired legs and knocks, especially with how physical Sunday played out. He has some tough calls to make in order to keep the players healthy and still retain the same level of success that has propelled them up the table. Gabriel Martinelli has seemed pacey as ever, but his contributions have seen a marked downturn compared to last season. Perhaps he needs a rest to get back to his best.

Have Mercy

Speaking of rotation, Kai Havertz received his 5th yellow card of the season, which means he will miss out on Thursday’s match while serving a one match ban. Between his ascendant form, the rampant injuries in the midfield, and the opponent, the timing couldn’t be worse. The obvious choice to supplant his spot would be Emile Smith Rowe, and who knows - it could usher in a second half of the season remontada for the Hale End product. He is an adept attacker whose directness has been missed at times. Few things would delight Arsenal fans more than seeing ESR return to being the game changer he was only two seasons ago.

But there is also the reality that ESR has missed an incredible amount of training and match time. He lacks in Havertz’ physicality and ball-winning prowess, which has been a huge difference maker over the past slate of matches. He does, however, have a nose for goal that few players on this side possess. Can he make the most of a potential starting chance?

Family Reunion

Thursday will also mark the first time that Declan Rice has faced his former club in the starting lineup in the PL, which could be an emotional affair for the former Hammer. He came in for the last half hour in the EFL Cup with the Gunners already behind by two goals and was met with mixed applause and boos from the West Ham fans at London Stadium. With this match being hosted at the Emirates, the ovation will be certainly more positive, but that still does not negate the potential mental factor for Rice as he faces the club that he was a part of for a decade.

Never Mind the Noise

Of the major differences between this season’s Arsenal and last season’s, the most noticeable may very well be their composure. Last season saw Arsenal surprise everyone, even themselves, as they shot up the table and stayed there for the majority of the season. But as the season drew on, their youth and emotions caught up with them. This season, the experience they gained has been palpable in how they have dealt with adversity and high expectations. Very rarely, if at all, do they seem to lose control of the match or their wits. Even in their two losses, they have not looked undone or outclassed. The table is tighter than it was at this stage last season, but that does not seem to phase them. Good teams rise above the noise and stay the course. So far, Arsenal have done that to great effect, but will need to keep that up as the season trudges on.

Halfway through the season, and the title race is no clearer than when the season kicked off. The Gunners are keeping the pace, but the margin for error is small and the path unwieldy. A London Derby win against a solid West Ham will see the Gunners in first and round out a very successful 2023 at home. With any luck, the fireworks will start a few days early in London for Mikel Arteta’s side.

WHAT: Arsenal vs West Ham United
WHEN: Thursday, December 28th, 3:15pm EST/12:15pm PST/8:15pm GMT
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming on Peacock

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