With a comfortable league position and a favourable route offered through to the 5th round of the FA Cup, everything was starting to take on a rosy complexion in the wonderful world of West Ham. But then just as we are making ourselves comfy in this state of abnormal well-being we are hit with a double whammy: first it is announced that Fabian Balbuena has become the latest in a long list of players to discover the West Ham treatment room has no exit – you can check-out but you can never leave; and then Marko Arnautovic comes down with an unprecedented case of yellow fever.
There is no doubt that the loss of Arnautovic in the wake of a huge bid from a Chinese Premier League club, would be a major blow to Manuel Pellegrini’s plans. Although he may not be the most prolific of goalscorers, his power, pace and mobility provides an important, almost exclusive, focus to the Hammer’s attack. There is no-one else in the squad comparable and options from elsewhere in the January transfer window will be both limited and expensive. I can understand that players might love to win trophies but going to China to do so is a desperate move – the equivalent of Rodney winning the Under 15 art competition in Only Fools And Horses! If his intention to leave is genuine (rather than merely a negotiating tactic) it is unlikely to end well for a club hoping to get the best out of him. It is a sad fact of modern football that keeping a player against their will is rarely successful.
This weekend, West Ham face Arsenal in the Premier League Saturday lunchtime kick-off at the London Stadium. When the two clubs met back in August both were pointless and the Gunners rather fortunate and flattering 3-1 win, after being a goal down, saw them embark on a long undefeated run of games. Since that run was brought to ignominious end at Southampton they have looked somewhat indifferent as they slip further behind in the race for lucrative Champion’s League qualification. Arsenal may well run around a lot more under new manager Unai Emery but the sacrifice has been a loss of flair and the introduction of comedy defending. If you had asked me a few days ago about the outcome of the game I would have said West Ham were firm favourites to record their first home victory over the Gunners since November 2006. Now I am not so sure.
With Balbuena possibly playing little part in the remainder of the season there is a bare bones look to the central defence. Whereas the Balbuena-Diop axis was solid, the Ogbonna-Diop one is erratic and prone to a collective loss of concentration. With few viable alternatives, the only defensive conundrum is the ongoing battle between Aaron Cresswell and Arthur Masuaku for the left back berth, where I believe Cresswell will get the nod.
Following an encouraging debut in the FA Cup, I expect Samir Nasri to get thrown into to a first league start alongside Declan Rice and Mark Noble in midfield while further forward Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio would hopefully support Arnautovic, if he is considered in the right frame of mind to play. This would leave no room for Robert Snodgrass and Grady Diangana but both would likely feature from the bench. Central midfield continues to be a worry and links to Jonjo Shelvey and Gary Medel do nothing to ease those concerns. Experience prompts an adverse Pavlovian repsonse in me when any player who is currently playing in Turkey is linked to the club; and a 31 year old ex-Cardiff City player is hardly an exciting, forward looking prospect.
Arsenal have been running West Ham close in the most injuries achieved competition but may be able to welcome back Bellerin, Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal and Ozil this weekend – although Mkhitaryan, Holding and West Ham nemesis Welbeck remain sidelined. Although Arsenal no longer have the traditional Wenger swagger in midfield (and what is the point of Iwobi?) the combined threat of Aubameyang and Lacazette can be as good as any in the league on their day.
Making his first refereeing appearance at a West Ham match this season is Jonathan Moss from West Yorkshire. Moss loves to flourish the cards and will be looking to add to his total of sixty seven yellows and four reds in what is often a fiercely contested London derby.
With two of the leakiest defences in the top half of the Premier League, this game is sure to have goals in it. BBC pundit Lawro is predicting 1-2 while at time of writing former Gunner Merson is still wrestling with his conscious before declaring for an Arsenal success. For me, a lot hinges on the Arnautovic situation – whether he is picked to play and, if he is, what his level of commitment will be. Arnie in churlish mood will see him limping around the pitch in a sulk looking to be the first name in the referee’s notebook. Nevertheless I am mysteriously in confident mood and can sense a Nasri inspired 3-2 Hammer’s bonanza.