Thursday, 26 December 2013

West Ham vs Arsenal: Match Preview

With Liverpool looking set to surrender their lead at the Etihad, we already have a chance to get a 3 point lead in the table by winning at Upton Park today, the home of West Ham. It's a game that we really should be taking three points out of, even after rotating our squad to rest the big guns.

This Arsenal side have struggled against the top teams, yet we are high up in the table. The lead - that we are almost certain to retain by the end of today - would almost completely be down to getting results against teams that we are supposed to be getting results. Bar the humiliation against Villa and the point-gained-rather-than-two-lost at the Hawthorns, we have defeated every team that aren't heavyweights in the league, such as Stoke, Swansea, Cardiff and Tottenham.

These were coupled by points won against Everton and Liverpool, which have ultimately got us in this position. While I still maintain that merely beating mediocre sides will not guarantee us the title, it has got us in a good position thus far, and we need to maintain that level of consistency until reinforcements arrive in January.

Personally, I'm confident that we are going to batter West Ham today, especially if we take the lead in the game. Once we break the deadlock against the Hammers, I really don't see any way back for them. However, if West Ham indeed take the lead, we might be in a bit of a pickle. In this Premier League season, we've conceded first only against West Brom, Manchester United and City, gaining only one point from these matches. It's safe to say that we might find it difficult to bounce back if we trail, which is why we need a focused defence today.

This is a match which allows room for rotation, keeping in mind that we face a much tougher task against Newcastle at St. James' Park 3 days later. Personally, I would be glad if Ozil and Giroud are dropped for Cazorla and Podolski, and Flamini and Arteta are played in center midfield. I feel that a major reason of Santi's form dropping is down to the fact that he's been fielded out wide, and benching him is certainly not the answer.

Ozil needs a rest for the Newcastle game, and Giroud needs a kick in the backside, a reminder that even his position in the starting lineup is not guaranteed. Maybe a run-out for Gnabry won't hurt either, as his pace might inflict damage to the West Ham back four. Some changes in our back four - like Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal coming in - won't be a bad idea either, even though I doubt that the manager is going to do that.

All in all, I would like to see a lineup of Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal, Flamini, Arteta, Santi, Walcott, Gnabry and Podolski. Cazorla - under pressure to step up his performances and pleased to get freedom in the center - will put a good show against a team that he has already performed fairly well. Gnabry was impressive against Swansea back in September, and I think that he and Theo will really bother the Hammers' defence. Even though I am highly dubious on Podolski's potential to solve our striker issues, I would at least give him a crack in that position, see if he can surprise any of us. As much as I like Giroud, 2 goals in 11 appearances is simply not good enough - he NEEDS to be benched.

However, I am quietly confident that Wenger is not going to bench Giroud. In fact, I think that he's going to play Ozil too, even though he isn't really required in this game. I've said it before, I'll say it again - Wenger is a horrible man manager. For instance, playing Cazorla out of position and then benching him is not the mark of a competent tactician at all. He's giving players like Szczesny, Ozil and Giroud too many games to play, which would make them complacent and might lead to injuries due to overplaying.

I think Wenger will give Flamini a starting position in this game and play Cazorla too, but I'm sure that Santi is going to start on the wing, a perfectly ridiculous decision if you ask me. It's getting increasingly clear throughout this calendar year that Cazorla cannot perform well as a winger, and to continue playing him there or benching him is destroying a quality player.

Sometimes I fear that Cazorla is set to go the same way as Arshavin. Arshavin's case was as clear as day to many people - he was a world-class player who needed to be given special attention to thrive. Wenger should've built the team around him and fielded him in the center attacking position or as center forward. However, Arsene foolishly pushed him to the flanks, and ruined the career of a promising player capable of producing magical moments.

I'll be honest - I have no clue why Wenger is treating Cazorla or even Podolski in such a manner. If treated right, these two players can be devastatingly effective for the club, yet the manager is ignoring their strengths and playing them in incompatible positions (or in Podolski's case, not playing them at all).

We have strength in depth, especially in midfield. A player like Mesut Ozil is not required to be starting in games like these. If Arsene does indeed start Mesut and should he suffer an injury, I will never forgive him, especially when there are players like Cazorla raring to take his place for ONE game. While the final result seems something of a given today, it is Arsene's team selection that will really catch the spotlight for me.

I think that Arsenal are going to win this match by a 2 goal margin, and Liverpool are going to lose convincingly at the Etihad. That would mean that our lead at the top is set to be reinstated, and possibly extended when Liverpool face Chelsea at the weekend. For me, rotation is key to finishing December strongly, coming through unscathed and to be in a healthy position ahead of a decisive January.

Let's begin with three points at Upton Park.

P.S. Check out this post I wrote for Arsenal India Supporters. Merry Christmas!

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )