The coming weekend looks set to be yet another of enthralling Premier League action and it starts off with an absolute corker – West Ham playing hosts to Arsenal at Upton Park for Saturday’s early kickoff (12.45pm).
The Gunners may have beaten the Hammers five times from their last six attempts, but it was the latter who came out on top in a 2-0 win on the opening day of the season and these are very different times in East London.
Indeed, Slaven Bilic has forged an incredibly impressive side since taking over from Sam Allardyce last summer, which is now just three positions and seven points behind third-place Arsenal in the Premier League table.
It’s hard to remember such an optimistic period in West Ham’s recent history as they prepare to move to the Olympic Stadium and of course, the fact this will be the last time the Hammers face their London rivals at Upton Park adds another intriguing subplot for Saturday’s game.
But we all know how dangerous a side Arsenal are and they enter this fixture on the back of consecutive victories. So who’ll come out on top in this tight-knit affair?
Perhaps a look at the THREE most important key battles can give us an insight…
Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny have proved themselves a formidable partnership in recent weeks, providing the defensive balance Arsenal are often accused of lacking in midfield.
Tellingly enough, during the last two fixtures in which they’ve started together in the engine room, against Everton and Watford, the Gunners haven’t conceded a single goal whilst notching up four at the other end.
But Dimitri Payet’s performances for West Ham this season have been so talismanic that even both working in conjunction might not be enough to stop him affecting the scoreline on Saturday.
Indeed, the France international is the Hammers’ top scorer and top creator in the league, notching up nine goals and eight assists respectively, and remains an outside contender for this season’s PFA Player of the Year award.
Elneny and Coquelin both offer an abundance of energy, but whether they possess the nous to stop one of the most intelligent attacking midfielders in the Premier League remains to be seen.
Arsenal’s starting Xi may boast a World Cup winning playmaker in Mesut Ozil and one of the Premier League’s most potent wide men in Alexis Sanchez, but promising youngster Alex Iwobi is arguably their biggest danger man at the moment.
Two Premier League starts, following an unexpected outing against Barcelona in the Champions League, has bore two Premier League goals, one effort against the bar and four created chances.
Stopping more proven (and in theory) more consistent members of Arsenal’s attack will likely take priority for West Ham this weekend but the east London outfit’s injury predicament at No.2, with Iwobi expected to line up on the left wing again, should work to the Nigerian international’s advantage.
Michail Antonio, a winger-forward by trade, filled in at right-back against Crystal Palace last weekend and certainly didn’t let himself down, whilst recent murmurings have suggested centre-back James Tomkins could start there on Saturday following ten games out with a calf injury.
But neither are specialists right-backs and that should play into Iwobi’s hands; he’s got the speed to embarrass Tomkins on the counter and the trickery to glide past a defensively naive Antonio.
On paper, West Ham are a solid defensive unit. Cheikhou Kouyate and Mark Noble protect the backline well, whilst Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna are an impressive centre-back partnership – combining an abundance of Premier League experience with Champions League pedigree.
But the Hammers have been found wanting at the back in recent weeks. They’ve conceded twice in three of their last four games and seven goals overall, despite facing a Manchester United side that lack attacking prowess and a Crystal Palace outfit who haven’t won a game since the turn of 2016.
With that in mind, there are certainly weaknesses for Danny Welbeck to exploit against the Hammers. He’s rose above Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud in the pecking order since returning from injury in February, going on to net four times in ten appearances across all competitions – including three strikes in the Premier League.
The England international firmly has the bit between his teeth ahead of Euro 2016 and even when not finding the net, his energy and physicality always causes the opposition problems. But Reid and Ogbonna are both particularly athletic centre-backs and if they improve upon their performances from recent weeks, they have a decent chance of nullifying Welbeck’s industrious threat.