Both Arsenal and West Ham United realised the combination of new managers and new players could lead to early struggles in a season following a World Cup.
Unai Emery and Manuel Pellegrini have both been at a loss early while their winless sides have racked up losses heading into Saturday’s London derby at the Emirates.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
One has to go back more than three generations to the last time Arsenal (0-0-2) opened a season with three losses on the bounce, and they are in danger of matching that dubious 1954-55 start following last Saturday’s 3-2 defeat at Chelsea.
While rallying from a two-goal deficit with strikes from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi four minutes apart late in the first half, the Gunners also spurned multiple gilt-edged chances in a frantic 45 minutes during which they should have netted at least twice more. Arsenal failed to hold out for the point as Marcos Alonso was left unmarked to sweep Eden Hazard’s pass by Petr Cech from close range nine minutes from time.
It marked the first time in 26 years Arsenal opened a campaign with back-to-back losses and left some wondering if Emery is trying to overhaul too much, too soon.
“I think we need to keep the players calm and continue working,” said Emery, who surprised some by dropping Aaron Ramsey in favour of Iwobi and moving Mesut Ozil to the forward playmaking role. “I know we need to push the players to work for our ideas. I think the team worked hard and had chances in the match. And then with the young players it is a process. They are playing and they are growing every touch with their quality and our demanding.”
Defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka again looked out of sorts and was replaced at halftime by summer signing Lucas Torreira. The 22-year-old Uruguay international should be paired with French teenager Matteo Guendozui as the two in front of Arsenal’s back four.
Cech did what he could in validating his selection over £22 million signing Bernd Leno, and many of the eight saves at his former stomping grounds were challenging. The 36-year-old keeper has 14 through the first two matches – trailing only Fulham’s Fabri (16) – and his old-school shot-stopping skills are currently proving more vital to Arsenal’s rebuild than Leno’s new-age ball distribution from the back.
“It’s not been easy, but sometimes that’s the way it is and you learn the hard way,” Cech told Arsenal’s official website. “I think every manager has his way of playing … but as I said it’s the way that it is and you can see that I’m happy to help and be the spare man.”
Cech is the all-time Premier League leader with 201 clean sheets, but he has only two in his last 18 starts while conceding two or more goals 12 times in that stretch.
The Ozil-Ramsey debate will likely rage on considering Emery pulled Ozil for Ramsey on 68 minutes and noted to The Independent the former German international “was working very well but we needed to push a bit harder for the pressing to keep our positioning on the pitch.”
Intimately familiar with life in the Arsenal midfield is ex-Gunner Jack Wilshire. He moved across the city on a free transfer after nine seasons in north London but has struggled to mesh with his new teammates as West Ham (0-0-2) are trying to avoid a second straight season with three losses out of the blocks.
“I’ve got to try and block all the emotion out,” Wilshire told West Ham’s official website about his impending return to the Emirates. “I obviously know them well. It’s down to me to prove a point to Arsenal that they were wrong to get rid of me.”
The raft of summer signings designed to raise the tide on the East End has taken on leaks early. A 4-0 thrashing by Liverpool at Anfield was followed by a 2-1 setback at home to Bournemouth last Saturday.
Marko Arnautovic staked the Irons to the lead after Chicharito drew a first-half penalty, but things went sideways on the hour. First, the defence failed to close down Callum Wilson as he successfully took on five players before beating Lukasz Fabianski through the legs.
Six minutes later, West Ham conceded the go-ahead goal off a set piece. The frustration was clearly evident late as the Irons accrued four of their six yellow cards after the 77th minute.
“In football, you never know how long it will take, but I know it takes time when you bring in so many players to get to know each other,” Pellegrini said. “Probably the most important thing is that they recover the trust in what they are doing and play like we did in the first 45 minutes.”
Felipe Anderson, the most notable of the summer signings as he arrived from Lazio, has yet to raise his play to match the bustle of Premier League midfields. Pellegrini also may be forced to give centre back Issa Diop – a £22 million transfer from Toulouse – his debut since fellow new signing and centre back Fabian Balbuena has had a torrid time in both matches.
Right back could also be up for grabs since veteran Pablo Zabaleta failed to distinguish himself after getting the start over Ryan Fredericks.
Arsenal are unbeaten in their last six (4-2-0) in all competitions versus West Ham and left it late in last season’s 4-1 win at the Emirates. Ramsey snapped a tie on 82 minutes before Alexander Lacazette scored twice in the final five minutes.
The Irons’ lone victory in the last 22 overall matches (1-4-17) between the teams was a 2-0 road triumph to open the 2015-16 season.
Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are solid 4/11 favourites while West Ham United check in as 7/1 underdogs. Taking the middle option of a draw is listed at 4/1 odds.
For a match result coupled with an over/under, an Arsenal win and under 3.5 goals is the betting favourite at 6/4 odds, followed by an Arsenal win and over 3.5 goals at 17/10.
Aubameyang leads the line as first-goal scorer with 13/5 odds, followed by Alexander Lacazette at 7/2. Mkhitaryan and Danny Welbeck are joint-third at 5/1 odds to make it 1-0, followed by Ramsey (6/1) and Ozil (13/2). For the nostalgic, picking Wilshire to stake the Irons to a 1-0 lead against his former club carries a 22/1 return.
For any-time scorers, Aubameyang has better-than-even odds at 4/6, with Lacazette at 21/20 and both Mkhitaryan and Welbeck at 7/5. Arnautovic and Chicharito are West Ham’s top options at 9/4 odds.
If anything, this contest will be a reprieve for Arsenal after facing two of the Premier League’s best midfields in Manchester City and Chelsea to open the season. While West Ham do have the talent to get forward on the flanks, the pairing of Wilshire and Mark Noble have yet to find traction in the middle of the park.
The Irons, though, also have pressing concerns further down the spine in central defence. Balbuena has yet to make a successful transition from South America, and Pellegrini’s plan — on the surface at least — to give Diop a potential soft debut in the Carabao Cup after this match may have to be scuppered given the Paraguay international’s struggles.
Emery should be giving Torreira his first Premier League start in this match, and that should stabilise Arsenal’s defence to a degree. Iwobi’s presence allowed Mkhitaryan to operate on his favoured right side, and it will be a curious decision for Emery to stick with Iwobi a second match or restore Ramsey.
If he chooses Iwobi, it’s another subtle yet definitive moment Emery and Arsenal are moving forward from the Wenger days. Restoring Ramsey is not a negative option, but it also puts pressure on him to figure out how to co-exist with Ozil, and that may mean Emery giving the pair freedom of interchange in the attacking half.
There will be the usual intensities that come with a London derby, but even with all the changes surrounding these sides, the usual outcome when these teams meet is the most likely outcome.
Predicted Final Score: Arsenal 2, West Ham United 1.
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