One last push before the Interlull as we visit West Ham this afternoon.
The Hammers have had a good season under David Moyes, a manager Mikel Arteta knows well, and aside from their form and solidity, they come into this game fresher and more rested. While we had midweek action against Olympiacos, they had their feet up so that’s something we have to contend with today. It might take us some time to get going.
Our schedule in the last few weeks has been hectic, and I wonder if that might inform the manager’s team selection today. The latest fitness update sees Bukayo Saka fit and available, which is good, but it also means he’s going to go away with England and take part in the ludicrous three games in six days that they face.
I wonder does that weigh on our manager’s mind. His job is to get results for his team, but also manage the fitness of his players. Could he keep Saka on the bench today, and use him only if needed, thus giving him some rest before his international commitments? There’s a similar scenario with Emile Smith Rowe who also faces three games in six days for England U21s. Should a manager deprive himself of a player for the greater good, or play his best side and hope they’re not destroyed by their countries?
Elsewhere, Thomas Partey and Martin Odegaard should return, and I’d be keen to see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang start up front again. He had a bad night in front of goal on Thursday, and it’s the second time in recent weeks that has happened to him. I do think there’s encouragement from the fact he’s in those positions and we’re making those chances, but he’s got to get his finishing sorted out. Also, although they’re both strikers, it’s not a like for like swap if you choose to play Alexandre Lacazette. He does different things – he wouldn’t race through on goal the way Aubameyang did late in the Olympiacos game, for example – so I’d prefer to see the captain lead the line again today.
At the back, perhaps we might see Cedric or even Calum Chambers at right back to deal with some of West Ham’s physical presence, and I worry a little about David Luiz. He’s been good of late, but there were some signs that the schedule is having an impact on those veteran legs. Rob Holding is fresh, having not played for a couple of weeks, but part of the reason he hasn’t is he made a couple of early mistakes in games, and we can’t afford to do that today. The balancing act between that and how large a fatigued Luiz mistake could be would certainly give any manager plenty to think about. Whoever he picks, he’ll want 100% concentration from though.
Arteta bemoaned our decision making after the game on Thursday, and I understood why, but we still created more than enough chances to win comfortably. Of course we can do better in certain situations, but increasing our efficiency in front of goal has to be the main thing right now. Do that and put ourselves in positions where even if we do mess something up, it’s not as fatal as it might have been.
West Ham’s threats won’t be any surprise to us, and they’re a danger from set-pieces: 33% of the goals they’ve scored this season have been scored that way. They have presence and size, and we’re going to need to be aggressive in the air. But from an attacking point of view, we have so many options to try and hurt them. The Gabriel Martinelli cameo in midweek was a reminder that at the very least we have a player whose impact as a sub is a real benefit. He doesn’t give you the technical security of a Smith Rowe on the left, but he adds something defenders, especially late in the game, won’t want to face and I hope we get to see some of him today.
In conclusion, we’re going to have to dig really deep to take three points. The opposition, the schedule, the Europa League hangover which has manifested itself more than once this season (although we did take Leicester apart in the same circumstances a few weeks ago), all make this a real challenge. These are the games we haven’t won enough of this season, however, and if we want to keep European qualification hopes alive via our Premier League finish, it’s a must-win.
Catch you later for the game.