Every season, it feels like there are a club or two that Arsenal just cannot seem to get past, form or fortune be damned. Last season, only two sides eluded defeat at the hands of the Gunners all season, and they were two sides at diametrically opposed positions at season’s end - eventual champions Manchester City, and bottom of the table Southampton.
There are a handful of clubs this season that pose a similar threat, but the one that has been most frustrating may very well be West Ham United. Of the London Derbies, this one is one of the more historically lopsided in Arsenal’s favor, especially in the Premier League era. But the balance has shifted in mysterious ways. Starting with the fateful draw at West Ham late last season, Arsenal have not beaten the Hammers in three straight matches across all competitions, and potentially face the longest winless run against their inner city rivals since 2005-2007, when they drew once and lost three in a row.
Arsenal head to London Sunday in hopes of putting an end to the winless run against a side that has bested them twice already this season. Can Mikel Arteta get past his recent nemesis David Moyes, or will the hosts play spoiler to Arsenal’s aspirations once again?
Here are five talking points ahead of Sunday’s match:
Monkey off their back
Arsenal’s season has not quite lived up to their newly-lofty expectations at times, which feels a little disingenuous to say with the Gunners 2 points off 1st with slightly less than half of the season left to play. Their most recent victory over 1st place Liverpool was an uplifting result that has reignited Arsenal’s title aspirations, even if they still have an uphill climb to get theres, with away fixtures against the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham still to come.
West Ham, though, are a potential roadblock that have a real chance of tripping the Gunners up before any of those matches come into play. They have been a persistent thorn in Arsenal’s side this season, and it was away to The Hammers last season that the Gunners’ title hopes took a major hit. Perhaps it’s a mental thing, but Mikel Arteta has been unable to get the better of David Moyes’ side for three straight matches, with two losses already this season in the PL and the EFL Cup. Perhaps this season has been a result of the Hammers taking the Declan Rice transfer a little TOO personally. Regardless, the Gunners may feel overdue a win, but they will have to bring it for a full 90 minutes to earn it against a side that has gotten the better of them in recent months.
Arsenal deftly recovered from a dire December with three convincing wins on the trot, scoring 10 goals after a frustrating dry spell in front of goal that had pundits questioning their title credentials. The recovery culminated with the momentum-boosting win over the weekend, where the Gunners looked as sharp as they have been all season. The Gunners may have been down, but they are far from out.
On the inverse, West Ham are in their worst run of form this season, entering Sunday on the back of a deflating 0-3 loss at United after three consecutive draws, all of which were preceded by their 2-0 victory over the Gunners at the Emirates. Knowing that West Ham would love nothing more than to use another victory over Arsenal as a springboard back into winning form, Sunday has more at stake than just 3 points. A loss or draw reignites the title-credential questions, and adds an unnecessary amount of pressure. It’s win or bust.
If it ain’t broke…
Arteta’s tactical acumen was on full display against Liverpool, especially with his decision to start Jorginho in the middle of the park and Kai Havertz at the 9. The tactics were successful because Liverpool, ever the protagonists, attacked openly and directly, which played into Arsenal’s hands. The Gunners broke their press routinely with efficient passing, with Jorginho expertly playing the role of release valve. The box midfield setup and the width of the wingers pulled apart Liverpool’s back line, leading to the highest xG Liverpool has allowed under Klopp in PL play.
West Ham are not Liverpool, but there is little reason to expect them to bunker down in a low block like the majority of the league do against Arsenal. They will be desperate for a win. Sitting 7th and in a poor run of form, they are still very much in the hunt for a European place. Motivation will not be hard for them to find, but that may once again play into Arteta’s hands.
Title winning teams are defined by their ability to find victories where they are often hardest to come by - away from home. Last season’s Arsenal put together one their best away records in club history. This season has not hit same standard, but Arsenal still find themselves within a shout of the top spot.
Sunday marks the first of three consecutive matches away from the Emirates, a crucial stretch that includes a trip to a desperate Burnley and a vital Champions League tie at Porto before returning home to host a spiraling-but-frustrating Newcastle. It’s not going to be easy, but if the Gunners can muster a win to start, their self-belief can only grow from there.
West Ham fans were not entirely happy to see long-time Hammer Declan Rice leave for bigger and brighter lights last summer, especially not to a cross-town league rival. Since his departure, they have played Arsenal with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, and in his brief cameo at the London Stadium in the League Cup, he was booed mercilessly by the home fans with every touch of the ball.
Rice has been other-worldly this season and has more than vindicated the hefty price tag that came with his transfer. But the pressure to play against the same side that gave him his leg up into the PL has proven to be a little tricky for him so far. In both matches, he has not quite been the difference maker he usually is, perhaps by some cunning stratagem of Moyes. Sooner or later, though, he will want to remind them that it’s just business, something that former Gunner Dinos Mavropanos had no problem doing when he scored the dagger against Arsenal in December.
Sunday doesn’t have the same level of excitement that last weekend did, but in some ways, it feels more important. The hardest thing to do, sometimes, is to regroup and refocus after a major, season-saving win. Emotions are high, and I’m sure there are fans still celebrating just to spite the mirthless celebration police. But Arsenal have three months left, and little room for error as the margin at the top is razor thin. If last week’s win was a statement, this needs to be the exclamation point that follows. Otherwise, it’s just puts a huge question mark on the potential for the rest of the season.
WHAT: Arsenal at West Hame
WHERE: London Stadium
WHEN: Sunday, February 11th, 9am EST/6am PST/2pm GMT
HOW TO WATCH: Broadcast on the USA Network. Streaming online on NBCSports.com
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