West Ham preview + Walcott’s situation takes a turn

West Ham today in the Premier League and a chance to make it 5 league wins in a row.

On form you’d have to think we’re the favourites for this one. The Hammers haven’t won a league game since January 18th when they beat Hull 3-0, but it’s never easy against a Sam Allardyce side who always seems to get a bit more out of his teams when it’s time to play us.

The team news isn’t hugely significant. We know we’ve lost Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for 3-4 weeks with what Arsene Wenger amusing referred to as a ‘classic hamstring‘ strain. Mathieu Flamini returns to the squad and that’s really about it, so the question is who replaces the Ox.

We could go seriously attacking and use Danny Welbeck; the manager might see a home game against a side in poor form as a good chance to give Theo Walcott a run out; or there’s Tomas Rosicky who missed out on Monday’s game at Old Trafford because of injury.

There are some interesting Walcott quotes from the manager this morning (more on that anon), and I have a feeling that he might use him today having left him on the bench for the last few games. The reasons behind that have been discussed plenty so there’s no real need to go into any depth, but if he can’t get a start at home against West Ham, then he should be very concerned about his situation.

So, beyond that enforced change in midfield, and Ospina coming back in for Szczesny, the only other change I can see is Giroud for Welbeck – the manager’s life would be made easier if he used Welbeck wide, but it’s still a decision he has to make one way or another. Can the reward for scoring the winner at Old Trafford be a place on the bench?

I guess we’ll see, but I’m enjoying the fact that we have options and our team selection is unpredictable at times – effectively so too. We know the kind of threats West Ham possess, and there’s a former player returning too which always adds a bit of spice, but we have built a little bit of momentum since our last defeat. We followed up our loss at Southampton in January with 5 consecutive wins, but one of those was in the FA Cup.

We haven’t won 5 in a row in the league since the tail-end of last season, a sequence which began with a 3-1 home win over West Ham. Let’s hope for more of the same today. And today is where all the focus should be, there should be thoughts of Tuesday and the Champions League until we’ve done our jobs against West Ham.

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Meanwhile, the manager has spoken about Theo Walcott and his current situation. It’s pretty obvious something is going on, but first and foremost Wenger says his absence from the team is down to him being cautious with the player:

I have been holding him back because he has been out for a long time and for the fact there is intense competition. He is ready now to play games.

Sounds reasonable, but he was playing games. He started against Hull in the FA Cup on Jan 4th, got 20 minutes as a sub against Stoke, started and scored against Brighton in the cup, started and scored against Villa, was tellingly benched against Sp*s away, but returned to the starting line-up to score against Leicester on Feb 10th. So he was playing and scoring, even if there were some issues with his overall performances.

And I think it’s those issues, plus the looming contract saga, that are now playing a part much more than any talk of ‘readiness’. The decision to start Welbeck over him at White Hart Lane, especially when Welbeck was just coming back from an injury, spoke volumes for me. It said the manager didn’t trust Walcott’s contribution in a game in which we’d have to be fully switched on defensively.

He was partly at fault for their winner, his defensive position and lack of awareness made it easy for them to get the cross in, but there were other Arsenal players who could have done more too for that situation. Nevertheless, it seems to have burned into the manager’s consciousness. Bar some minutes against Boro in a cup game we were always going to win and a desperate throw of the dice against Monaco in the Champions League, he hasn’t featured in the Premier League since the Leicester game.

At Old Trafford on Monday night he expected to replace Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and was getting stripped and ready only to see Aaron Ramsey get the call. A minor tantrum ensued on the bench as he threw his tracksuit top around a bit, but it was an illustration of Wenger’s lack of trust in him away from home, and perhaps in general.

Add to this the contract issue and we have a situation, no doubt about it. Last time he renewed his deal he had a strong hand, as we’ve covered before. We just could not allow him to go and he and his people knew that. Now, there’s genuine competition for his place in the team, and the qualities which he possesses aren’t unique to him anymore. There’s pace in the side, there’s more finishing ability, and from players who can offer more of an all-round game.

The manager sounded particularly sarcastic when asked about negotiations, saying:

The first contacts have been established with the embassy. We will see how that progresses politically. Walcott was difficult to convince [for his previous contract] and that is why it took us much time. We started very early with him but it was slow progress.

He is very quick on the pitch but off the pitch, not always.

Arsene Wenger is man who chooses his words very carefully and to see him talk about ‘the embassy’ and how things will progress ‘politically’ tells you plenty about what’s going on. We’re talking about something relatively simple here: a contract at a football club, but the implication from the manager is that the difficultly lies with Walcott and his advisers, and after what happened last time I think we know that’s the most likely scenario here.

He also threw down the gauntlet a bit, saying:

I want him to stay and be a regular player and fight for his place, but no matter where you go, if it is a big club, you have to compete for your place. We went to Manchester United on Monday night – look at what they had on the bench. Look at what was sitting on the bench at Chelsea v Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday night. That is part of the job.

When he also referenced the signings of Welbeck and Alexis, then it’s a clear message to Theo: we want you to stay, but these are the guys you have to compete with if you want to play. Are you up for it?

Because if he’s not, we’ve got a decision to make in June. This time around there’s no way we can leave it until the January when he can choose to leave on a free. I think he either extends his contract before, or in the early part of, the summer or we’ll sell him because we can’t let him go for free, simply as that.

The other thing that occurs to me is that Theo isn’t unintelligent. He must look at the other players in the squad and know that his place in the team is under serious threat. He’s no longer the golden boy, the special snowflake, and he might feel like he’ll have more chance of playing somewhere else, particularly if he’s a marquee signing.

Anyway, it all adds up to a situation where we have a player whose commitment to the club is in doubt during a crucial part of the season. I don’t doubt that he’ll do his job professionally when called upon – and there’s plenty of football left for him to play his part – but we’ve been down this road a few times previously and it’ll certainly be in the manager’s thinking.

Let’s see how it all plays out.

Right, if you can’t see the game later, why not join us here for the live blog later on. We’ll keep you up to date with live text commentary and you can chat with fellow Gooners from all around the world. Check back later for a post with all the details or bookmark our default live blog page and updates will begin automatically.

Now, time for a big long dog walk, until later.

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