Arsenal vs. West Ham: Potential Key Individual Battles
By Mac Johnson (Debut Article)
North and East London clash this Sunday, as West Ham United travel to the Emirates Stadium. Our not-so-long-awaited return to the Emirates Stadium has many Arsenal fans buzzing after a triumphant start to Premier League life this past Saturday, against a rather toothless Fulham side. West Ham, in contrast, stumbled their way through a 2-0 loss at home, and given their away form last season, it’s not too much of a stretch to say the Gunners are the favourites to win this weekend.
Arsenal’s record against the Hammers supports that claim, with five wins from the last six to their name. The sixth of those games was a 1-0 loss at the London Stadium back in January of 2019, but given that we won’t have Unai Emery and Jon Moss fighting for the opponents, that sort of result should be easily avoided. But I expect West Ham to come out guns blazing, looking to overcome the ignominy of last weekend.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the key matchups this weekend.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang vs Ryan Fredericks:
Our newly-signed captain should have a pretty good chance of continuing his hot streak against West Ham, but the major obstacle standing in his way is Ryan Fredericks. The 27-year-old is lightning-fast, and is particularly adept at defending in one-on-one situations, which, coincidentally, is also where Auba is best at scoring. As West Ham like to play a back four, our Gabonese talisman will likely look to run off the shoulder of either Issa Diop or Angelo Ogbonna, and it will be Fredericks’ duty to mop up the mess. Only time will tell if he can.
Expect a constant battle between the two, especially as Fredericks will look to dart up the right flank when the Hammers have possession. Considering one of Jarrod Bowen or Andriy Yarmolenko will likely keep our left-wing-back’s hands pretty full, Aubameyang will have to be on his best defensive behavior in order to nullify the threat of Fredericks’ whipped crosses into the box, a key tool in seeking out Sebastian Haller and/or Mikel Antonio, depending on who gets the nod.
Thomas Soucek vs. Granit Xhaka:
Another player who will likely be first in line for those crosses is Thomas Soucek, West Ham’s January wonderboy. David Moyes often deploys Soucek almost as a second striker, allowing him to use his unique combination of hold-up skills and excellent passing technique to dominate the centre of the pitch. And rock meets a hard place, there lies Granit Xhaka.
Especially as Xhaka drops deeper into the Arsenal midfield, per his tactical instructions, he’s likely to butt heads (hopefully not literally) with Soucek. The 6’4” Czech will have his hands full, as Xhaka certainly isn’t afraid of a scrap, and without the pace to outmaneuver him, it’s going to be a long evening for both players, especially considering their mutual reliance on physicality.
Going the other way, expect Xhaka to encounter some frustration in working around Soucek, whose defensive acumen is pretty stellar. If he has good outlets, it shouldn’t be much a problem, but the West Ham pressing scheme can often be frenetic early. He’ll have to watch out for errors in the opening 20-25 minutes.
Mikel Antonio/Sebastian Haller vs Rob Holding:
It’s a classic situation in English football: the pacey striker coming up against the strong, if slightly lumbering, centre-back. Regardless of who Rob Holding matches up against this Sunday, he will likely struggle to contend with their pace, specifically Antonio's, especially if West Ham setup with a counter-attacking style, although that’s unlikely considering their typical tactical set-up.
The more pressing concern will be in crossing scenarios, where Arsenal are still slightly shaky, despite their summer investment into their backline. New signing Gabriel Magalhaes will likely feature in some capacity, and will be able to help, but when it comes to a one-on-one battle, isolating Holding will be West Ham’s best chance of nabbing a goal.
In addition, Pablo Fornals has been key to unlocking the runs of forwards in recent months, and given he’ll have some extra freedoms because of Granit Xhaka’s aforementioned occupation with Thomas Soucek, Holding will have to work doubly hard to shut down the West Ham central forward.
However, Holding also has a talent for making life particularly nasty for opposing forwards when he’s on form, something he certainly has been over the past few months. If West Ham play their usual 4-5-1 formation, he’ll certainly be capable enough to lock down whoever he comes up against.
Those are only a few of the key battles Arsenal will face this weekend. While tactics and lineups have yet to be determined, it’s fair to say that both teams will certainly compete at the highest level they can. West Ham have a defeat to avenge, and Arsenal have #1 spot in the table to stick to. I’m bloody excited.