Opposition Q & A

This weekend West Ham welcome Arsenal to the London Stadium for an early Saturday afternoon kick-off. Ahead of the game I spoke to two colleagues and die-hard Arsenal fans Matthew Coulter and Matt Jenkins to garner their collective thoughts on this weekend’s game, and the season so far.

We’re at the halfway stage of the season how do you sum up your season so far?
It was going really well until our December blip against Liverpool which showed how far we are off making a genuine challenge. However, Unai Emery has only been there since July and this is a work in progress. People outside the club don’t really realise the huge range of problems he took over from. At least we are doing better than last year so with the new manager there is improvement.
It’s been an interesting season for us given the changes at management and coaching level. After a tough start in which we lost at home to Man City and then away to Chelsea, there was a great recovery and we went on a very long unbeaten run until just before Christmas. We currently sit in fifth place and are in the fight for top four which is our target. Overall, Arsenal fans are still very optimistic about Emery and are happy with what has been achieved so far but there remain huge concerns about our defending or lack thereof! There are questions about whether many of the current players we have in defence are capable of showing the necessary improvement and concerns that we lack the funds to bring in new players that are better – we aren’t currently linked with any in this January window.

Were you part of the increasingly loud group of fans that were demanding the end of the Arsene Wenger’s reign last season?
Yes – which is sad. He had worn down the most loyal of supporters by the end and it was definitely time for Arsene to move on. He had been fantastic for us in the early years of course when he brought in so much talent which transformed the club. However, his inability to bring in untapped talent (such as Henry or Vieira) and build a defence effectively caught up with him in the end. But thanks Arsene for the memories and thank you leaving us Lacazette and Aubameyang.
Arsene Wenger was a huge part of the club and achieved so much during his 22 years with the Arsenal. He built some fantastic sides and played with a philosophy that truly encapsulated the meaning of the phrase ‘the beautiful game’. The last few years were difficult because the fan base was so divided and any poor performance or result brought about an extremely toxic atmosphere at The Emirates and on the road. Personally, I think it would have been the right time to go after one of the more recent FA Cup victories – certainly after his 2017 victory over Chelsea in which he became the most successful manager in FA Cup history with seven wins. I, along with many others, was disappointed when he stayed on and found it hard to watch him put himself through it as much as anything because there were no signs that he could change it. It was the right decision for him to go and once it was announced, the atmosphere around the club changed and fans were able to show their appreciation for all that he had done during the last few games of the season. It was such a shame we lost a Europa League semi-final against the eventual winners Athletico Madrid as that would have been a fitting send off to a great man.

Now that you’ve replaced Arsene Wenger with Unai Emery, are you pleased with the progress he has made so far? Is it a question of the grass looking greener for you, or is it too soon to make an informed judgement?
See above – still a little soon but the signs are good. At least the fans are united.
There was always the concern that things would get a lot worse before they got better as hilariously experienced by Manchester United after Ferguson left! So far, under Emery, there have been signs of improvement in the ground we cover, the pace and intensity of our attacking play and we have made a few good signings most notably in the form of Lucas Torreira. Injuries as of late have been damaging to us particularly in the defence which is where we are weakest. We have lost Rob Holding who was our most consistent performer in the centre of defence for the season and have missed Bellerin at right wing back both as a defender and as a key part of the way we build attacking play down the flank. Bellerin and five others have made a welcome return to full training but it remains to be seen whether the game at the weekend will come too soon for them or not. We have made progress and the fans are on the whole pleased so far but it is still too soon to make a fully informed judgement. Emery will need a couple of transfer windows to get in more of the players that he needs to fully implement his ideas and take us to the next level.

The transfer window is upon us, are there any areas that you think you urgently need to improve?
Defence, central midfield.. although things are better but we need a player to support Torreira, who is great, in the middle of the park.
As previously mentioned – defence! We brought in a stop-gap signing in the form of Stephan Lichtsteiner to provide cover for Bellerin but at the age of 34 he has really struggled to adapt to the pace of the Premier League. Koscielny is 33 and returning from a serious injury which cost him a place in the World Cup winning France team and claimed that he would probably have left at the end of last season. Sokratis has shown improvement but it is still too early to tell with him – he likes a rugby tackle though and it amazes me that he is yet to see red in an Arsenal shirt! Most Arsenal fans are of the view that Mustafi is not at the level required and Kolasinac offers a lot going forward but has made a number of defensive errors this season. The most important position for us to strengthen is centre back so we are looking at attacking wide players –some things don’t change!

Going back to John Radford, and taking in players such as Liam Brady (by the way what a great goal scored by Brady in the game highlighted in Dan’s preview: great to see him celebrating against his former team), Ian Wright, Davor Suker, Marouane Chamakh, (the list is endless) right up to Jack Wilshire, Arsenal have traditionally managed to sell off their aged/’past it’ players to West Ham: which of your current squad would you like to offload to us?
Yes indeed – well you can have Mesut Ozil and Xhaka if you can afford their wages. Hope it works out for Jack by the way.
There would be no shortage of Arsenal fans that would personally volunteer to help Mustafi pack and move house if you want him?! Not that he would have far to go – the offer would stand for any place in Europe! You also currently have Fabianski, Nasri, Perez who were once Arsenal players as well!

I said the list was endless! Which of West Ham’s players (if any) do you wish you could entice to make the opposite journey?
A fit Jack Wilshere would be welcome back – I have always admired Mark Noble’s commitment and tackling – something we have sometimes missed. Do you have any good centre halves?
I read an article linking us with Reece Oxford the other day! No doubt that is just clickbait. I always liked Mark Noble but it may be a bit late in his career for him to make a move and it would be a shame for such a loyal player to West Ham to not finish his top level career with you.

How do you rate the appointment of Manuel Pelligrini as West Ham’s manager and his tenure so far?
Thought he was going to be great for you but he disappointed at first so it is wait and see. He is a proven winner and might come good for you.
Pelligrini is certainly a manager with a great record but I thought he’d retired! West Ham had a difficult start to the season but have recovered very well with some great results along the way against strong opposition. There has definitely been improvement under him from what I have seen so it seems to be working out well so far.

Which teams have impressed you the most this season at The Emirates? Who is going to win the League, and which teams will occupy the Champions League slots?
Manchester City… Liverpool, them and hopefully us – so Chelski miss out. It will be tough for us.
Obviously Manchester City on the first day of the season looked very strong and beat us 2-0. We had a chance at 1-0 which we didn’t take then they turned the screw and got the second which killed the game off. We beat Spurs at home in the league in the best performance of our season and were unlucky to lose 3-2 away at Chelsea in the second game of the season. Liverpool came at a point where Emery had had some time to work with the players a bit and came away with a 1-1 draw which we probably shaded but was a reasonably fair result. I did however make the journey to Anfield a couple of weeks ago and watch them dismantle us in a 5-1 game that could have been more in fairness. Whilst the best performance against us was by Liverpool, I think they will finish second with City winning the league. That lot up the road look like they won’t be too far behind but I can’t see them finishing higher than third. Fourth place is probably the biggest battle in the Champions League race with Chelsea three points ahead of us and United making up the ground having replaced their manager. Any of those three teams could take fourth and I’m going to stick my neck out and say we can pip Chelsea!

What position do you think Arsenal will finish the season?
Hopefully 4th..
As above, our target and hope is fourth and are very much in the race. I don’t see us finishing any lower than fifth as the Manchester United revival has so far been against poor opposition and we are yet to see if they can sustain it in the longer term.

Where will West Ham finish the season?
They have recovered well – so top half.
It seems the top 6 will win a lot of their games this season so teams below that will lose a lot of points but it will be quite tight below that and teams may finish higher than the total points they get will typically see them finish in other seasons. West Ham are currently tenth, a point behind Watford and Wolves who have both been quite consistent over the season but West Ham can certainly finish above them. Leicester seem likely to stay where they are. There are some decent teams just below with Everton likely to improve as the season goes on so they pose a threat. – 9th.

Most West Ham fans will have great memories of: being the last and first away teams to win at Highbury and the Emirates respectively, I personally would say the 1980 Cup Final was the most memorable West Ham game I attended: any particular West Ham/Arsenal games that you can recall?
I was at all of those games – the 1980 cup final – aaargh! You deserved that one and Brooking with a header too!
Too many victories to mention them all! – but the stand out for me was the FA cup reply in 1998 – a fantastic backs-against the wall performance from 10-man Arsenal. Bergkamp was sent off for elbowing Lomas in the face and then Anelka scored a wonderful goal just before half-time. Eventually won on penalties. Arsenal went on to win the Double that year.

How are Arsenal likely to line up against West Ham this weekend, players/formation?
He is running out of fit centre halves so 4-4-2.. but Unai may switch to 3 – 4 – 1 -2 (just to confuse you!)
_We have been playing with three at the back supported by two wingbacks recently but it is difficult to know who will be fit in defence at this stage. We often play with two in the middle and a front three with Lacazette through the middle. Ozil is fit again but is likely to be on the bench.

Leno Bellerin, Sokratis, Mustafi, Monreal, Kolasinac,> Torreira, Xhaka> Aubamayeng, Lacazette, Iwobi._

Are you feeling confident about the result? What’s your prediction for the score?
Yes – we normally do well and it will be an open game. 2-4 to the Arsenal.
Relatively! We often play well on the road and have had some good results against West Ham over the years but they are always very close at your place as it’s still an intimidating place to go given the passion of your fans. It was 3-1 to Arsenal at The Emirates and I can’t see us keeping a clean sheet so I will go with West Ham 1-2 Arsenal.

Well thank you to the two Matthews for their time. I think they are both being a bit optimistic about the result, and so I think that we will further dent the progress of Unai Emery this weekend. It’s also about time we returned to scoring three goals a game, so 3 – 1 West Ham. COYI

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