West Ham United already knew they had a fight on their hands in a bid for a top-half finish while potentially contending for a spot in European play next term.
Now they have another one to keep their top striker in place ahead of Saturday’s derby at home against London rival Arsenal.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Irons (8-4-9) are currently in 10th place but only three points out of seventh, a spot that could result in a Europa League qualifying round berth depending on the Carabao Cup and FA Cup results. But an unnamed Chinese Super League club – rumoured to be Shanghai SIPG – has thrown a spanner into the works with a £35 million bid for striker Marko Arnautovic.
Arnautovic’s brother Danijel, who also represents him, went public with the Austria international’s desire for the London club to accept the offer, telling TalkSport, “He wants to go to a new market and challenge for titles. This is what he wants. It is his great desire West Ham accept the offer from China.”
West Ham, who bought Arnautovic from Stoke City for £20 million in July 2017, issued a terse statement that read: “Marko has a contract and we fully expect him to honour it. He is not for sale.”
Arnautovic is the joint-leader in goals for West Ham with eight after scoring the opener in their 2-0 FA Cup win over Birmingham City on Saturday. He nearly got into a row with Manuel Pellegrini upon his precautionary removal after 20 minutes due to a twinge in his back, but the Chilean manager would not back down from his decision given the Irons have 17 league matches remaining.
“It is not very important,” Pellegrini said post-match according to the Guardian. “It was better to change him because he is just coming back from an injury. He could continue but it was better to protect him. He was angry for one minute.”
West Ham do not have many true centre-forwards beyond Arnautovic, with Andy Carroll also rumoured to be on the move in the January window. The oft-injured Carroll scored in second-half stoppage time to seal the victory with his first goal since April.
The win also marked the debut of midfielder Samir Nasri, who arrived on West Ham on a free transfer and was eligible after serving an 18-month ban for doping. The one-time Arsenal midfielder played 58 minutes before being subbed out for Robert Snodgrass, and the expectation is the former France international will at worst be among the 18 for this contest.
Arsenal (12-5-4), who are three points behind Chelsea for fourth and three ahead of hard-charging Manchester United, also emerged unscathed in the third round of the FA Cup as they won 3-0 at Blackpool on Saturday. Joe Willock had a first-half brace as Unai Emery overturned seven of his starting XI that won 4-1 over Fulham to ring in the new year.
While West Ham are being dragged into the January transfer window, it appears the Gunners do not have much interest in it. Emery raised a few eyebrows at his Thursday news conference when he announced the club would only add players via loan in this window, which adds to the intrigue of whether midfielder Aaron Ramsey would leave this month.
Ramsey started in the win over Blackpool and has been linked with a move to Juventus, but he and Emery appear to be on the same wavelength regarding professionalism. To Emery, that makes Ramsey available for selection.
“It’s an individual situation rather than the team,” he said about Ramsey. “My idea and focus, I say to him every day, is that we need his performance for us. In the last match I was very happy with him. I asked in the last match at Blackpool if he is OK to help us play and he said, ‘Yeah, coach, I want to play’ and he played with a very big behaviour and commitment to us.
“Every day he’s here with us, he’s working very well. I want his behaviour and his focus to be on West Ham on Saturday.”
The break for the FA Cup allowed Arsenal to start working back to full health as Hector Bellerin, Laurent Koscielny, Dinos Mavropanos, Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal and Mesut Ozil all resumed training with the first team this week. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Rob Holding and Danny Welbeck all remain long-term injury absentees, with Mkhitaryan expected to resume practicing next month.
The teams have kicked on to differing levels since Emery recorded his first league win at Arsenal in the reverse fixture in late August. The Gunners ran out 3-1 winners in that match, with West Ham defender Issa Diop’s own goal on 70 minutes snapping a 1-1 deadlock. Arnautovic and Monreal traded goals five minutes apart in the first half, and Welbeck scored in stoppage time to seal the win.
Arsenal have won three on the bounce in all competitions in this derby and are unbeaten in the last seven (5-2-0) overall. The Gunners are also unbeaten in their last 11 trips (8-3-0) to east London since a 1-0 loss at Upton Park in 2006 and 18-4-1 in the last 23 overall meetings.
Per Bet365, Arsenal are 21/20 favourites to win this London derby, with West Ham 5/2 underdogs to claim all three points amid the distractions of the Arnautovic saga. There are 3/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.
Oddsmakers are overwhelmingly expecting goals, with 8/15 odds on clearing 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 going under that total. It’s also expected both teams will score, with 1/2 odds of no clean sheets compared to 6/4 with at least one.
Arsenal’s strikers Aubameyang and Lacazette lead the line for first goal-scorers at 3/1 and 4/1, respectively. The man of the moment — Arnautovic — is an 11/2 selection and top option among the Irons. Arsenal reserve Eddie Nketiah checks in at 6/1, just ahead of Carroll at 13/2, while his Hammers teammates Chicharito (13/2) and Lucas Perez (7/1) follow.
Aubameyang is a 4/6 pick to score during the match, and Lacazette is even money to do so. Arnautovic is tabbed as a 7/5 option, while Nketiah again pips Carroll and Chicharito, this time at 8/5 compared to the Irons duo at 7/4. Ozil lurks as a 2/1 anytime option and 15/2 pick to make it 0-1.
Well this is less than ideal for West Ham, isn’t it? After the Chinese Super League had cooled off in recent windows regarding exorbitant offers of Premier League players, here come Shanghai to drop a haymaker of an offer for Arnautovic. The grandstanding between his agent brother and the club (though, to be fair, the club’s terse statement after his Danijels statement almost caused whiplash it came so fast) will be something to watch in the coming days or perhaps weeks.
It is unfortunate because at the very least, West Ham had the appearance of a team that looked like they had a proper 18 for league play and definitely did not lack for options in attack. One almost wonders whether they secretly wished it was Carroll and not Arnautovic being the apple of Shanghai’s eye to finally be rid of the oft-injured forward.
It almos gives the feel that Arnautovic’s anger about being lifted was premeditated, that he and his brother knew this offer was coming down the pike. That’s a conspiracy theory for another day, but something to chew on.
For Arsenal, they are near or at the point where they have their entire first-choice back four for Emery to begin seeing just how good this team can really be. And Emery deserves credit for plugging players in uncomfortable spots and pragmatically flexing between different formations to not only mask deficiencies but keep Arsenal in the hunt for a top-four spot. There is still a gulf in class to the top three, but fourth is most certainly attainable.
It would not be surprising to see Ramsey start over Ozil, but there has to be a stick-or-twist moment with the former Germany international decides he is on board or starts plotting his next move. It’s laudable to hold everyone accountable, but Emery cannot keep citing “matchups” as a reason to keep his most creative playmaker off the 18-man roster at times.
This is the first time West Ham have had to deal with an external distraction, but to Pellegrini’s credit, he did well to right the ship after a self-created one with his side’s four-loss start in league play that included the defeat at the Emirates.
Arsenal, though, look primed to take advantage of the circus around Arnautovic and should power through for three points here.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham 0, Arsenal 2.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:
Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)