2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 Preview — West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 7 — West Ham United (1-1-4) vs. Manchester United (3-1-2)

For all the talk of the captain’s armband around Carrington and Old Trafford this week, a circus ringmaster’s hat may be the next appropriate piece of fashion to be discussed as the fractious relationship between Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba and manager Jose Mourinho spilled out into the open ahead of Saturday’s match’s at West Ham United.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

While the two have circled round each other to varying degrees starting almost the moment after Pogba lifted the Jules Rimet trophy with France at the World Cup – aided by the words, actions and inactions of Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola and United executive chairman Ed Woodward – this week has taken the relationship, or lack thereof, to a new level or low depending on perspective.

It began with last weekend’s 1-1 draw against Wolverhampton which ended a three-match winning streak in all competitions for United (3-1-2). Pogba set up Fred’s first-half goal but was also responsible for the giveaway that led to Joao Moutinho’s equaliser for Wolves.

United were on the back foot for much of the match against the promoted side, something Pogba noted to the BBC post match in which he said, “We are at home, and we should play much better against Wolves. We are here to attack. … When we play like (that) it’s easier for us.”

That tweaking of Mourinho’s tactics led the manager to stripping Pogba of his vice captaincy in front of his teammates on the practice grounds one day before United crashed out of the Carabao Cup 8-7 on penalties Tuesday at home to Championship side Derby County, run by Frank Lampard — one of Mourinho’s star midfielders at Chelsea.

After the loss – in which Pogba did not play as part of a prearranged plan by the two parties – Mourinho downplayed any talk of a rift while confirming his action without explanation, saying “The only truth is that I made the decision for Paul not to be second captain any more. It was exactly the same person who decided Pau was the second captain – myself. No fallout at all, just decisions I do not have to explain.”

On Wednesday, video emerged of a tense exchange between the two at Carrington, with details later coming out Mourinho was upset over an Instagram post Pogba made that reached his social media account 30 minutes after the loss to Derby County. That, however, blew over without incident when it became clear that the WiFi at Old Trafford – which English journalists all have pointed out is notoriously inconsistent – led to the delay in the video posting in what optically looked at an inopportune time.

Yet as Mourinho put out one fire, another emerged with his surprising criticism of defender Phil Jones, whose missed penalty in the eighth round consigned United to defeat and was the only attempt among the 16 by both sides stopped. After the match, Mourinho said “Going after the sixth and seventh I knew we would be in trouble with Jones and Eric (Bailly).”

While this sideshow rages on, one point Mourinho repeated Tuesday after the draw versus Wolves rang true – United currently are lacking a killer instinct to finish teams off. The red card to keeper Sergio Romero did United no favours, and it took Marouane Fellaini’s stoppage-time equaliser just to get the match to penalties.

Whether Pogba is restored to the lineup is a question only Mourinho answers. “The Special One” though has issues at both right back and left wing. For the former, summer signing Diogo Dalot appears ready to supplant veteran Antonio Valencia, whose lack of effectiveness going forward is overshadowing his steady play along United’s back four.

Up front, Alexis Sanchez was an unused substitute Tuesday night – the second time in three matches he did not play, though he was left behind for United’s Champions League opener on the artificial pitch at Young Boys. With Marcus Rashford having completed a three-match ban for violent conduct and eligible to return, Mourinho may shuffle his attackers as Tuesday goal-scorer Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard are also among the options with Sanchez and Rashford to flank Romelu Lukaku in United’s 4-3-3.

The drama surrounding Pogba and Mourinho has sucked up all the oxygen in that facing what appears to be a resurgent West Ham United squad is completely secondary. After opening league play with four losses on the trot, the Irons (1-1-4) have taken four points from their last two matches and ended Chelsea’s 100 percent run with a scoreless draw last Sunday.

In fact, it can be argued West Ham should have taken all three points, but Andriy Yarmolenko missed a wide-open header late as the Irons sorely missed the presence of injured striker Marko Arnautovic.

Much of West Ham’s resurgence can be attributed to the introduction of Declan Rice in a holding midfielder role in front of the back four. There was also a strategy to lay deeper against Chelsea, something that could repeat itself again in this match given Man United’s attacking options.

“It is obvious that we have improved, otherwise we would not have taken four points in these last two matches,” midfielder Pedro Obiang told the club’s official website. “We have to improve more to meet the expectations that we have about us. We are doing it little-by-little, week-by-week.

“The expectations with the new signings and the new coach are very big. We had a bad start and now we have to organise ourselves little-by-little.”

That organisation on the offensive side finally came to fruition Wednesday when West Ham demolished last-place League Two side Macclesfield Town 8-0 at home. Grady Diangana had a brace in his senior Hammers debut while Ryan Fredericks, Robert Snodgrass and Lucas Perez all added their first goals with the club.

“We played with intensity and we tried to continue playing in the same way,” a pleased Pellegrini said. “A lot of the time when you play against a lower league team you don’t play with the same pace, and you think you can walk to victory but we were very professional.”

Arnautovic is expected to be restored to the starting XI, with Michail Antonio the most likely candidate to make way for the Austria international. Arnautovic has combined with Yarmolenko to score all five of West Ham’s goals in league play.

Manchester United took four points in last season’s means, including a scoreless draw in the corresponding fixture. West Ham United are winless in their last five (0-2-3) in all competitions versus the Red Devils and have not scored in 358 minutes in league play against them since Diafra Sakho’s goal  a 1-1 draw Nov. 27, 2016.

West Ham have just one win in their last 19 league matches (1-5-13) against Manchester United, a 3-2 victory at Upton Park on May 10, 2016. The Irons, though, are 1-4-2 in the last seven top-flight matches between the clubs.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are comfortable 4/5 favourites to return home with three points. The odds of a draw at 13/5 are slightly better than West Ham pulling off a surprise win at 13/4.

Oddsmakers believe there will be goals scored as Manchester United are 7/4 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored compared to 17/5 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 15/4 odds, while an Irons win over 2.5 goals is listed at 6/1 odds and a victory for the hosts under 2.5 checks in with 8/1 odds.

Lukaku leads the line for first-goal scorers at 10/3, with Rashford getting 5/1 odds to make it 1-0 upon his return to the fold. Martial (11/2) has moved ahead of Sanchez (6/1) on United’s pecking order for the first goal of the match, and the Hammers have both Arnautovic and Chicharito listed as 6/1 odds to get the home side off to a positive start.

For those who think Manchester United can get a 1-0 lead via penalty and are willing to take a flyer on Pogba, the France international is getting 15/2 first-goal odds.

Lukaku is near even-money to score over the course of the 90 minutes at 23/20, with Rashford lurking at 17/10. Martial and Sanchez have 2/1 odds to beat Irons No. 1 Lukasz Fabianski, with West Ham strikers Arnautovic and Chicharito at 2/1.

PREDICTION

Before all the breathless speculation about who will emerge as the winner of this cage match between Pogba and Mourinho, one thing needs to be said straightaway: This is not that big of a deal unless Pogba is dropped from the starting lineup. THEN the argument can be made about Mourinho possibly losing the plot and the dressing room.

Talk all you want about where Pogba may go in the January window in the unlikely event Woodward acquiesces to Raiola’s wishes, refresh the toteboard on the odds of Mourinho’s survival as often as you like, if No. 6 is out there Saturday afternoon, how much has really changed for Manchester United?

In some respects, Mourinho’s side have become a poor man’s Tottenham Hotspur — United are a team with a defined ceiling that right now can be argued will not be good enough to finish in the top four.

Crashing out of the Carabao Cup is in irritant mostly restricted to Mourinho because he likes pointing to silverware as proof positive he is coaching United the right way. Losing to Lampard is an additional aggravating factor. About the only certainty regarding United is they play their best when challenged — evidenced at Burnley, evidenced at Watford.

This is a team that needs to be away from Old Trafford this weekend and are fortunate enough the schedule-makers aligned in their favour.

It is too early to buy on West Ham, solid back-to-back games aside. Pellegrini played a smart tactical game against Chelsea considering he did not have Arnautovic available, and the two low banks of four removed the issue of Noble’s lack of pace that could have been a factor had the Irons tried to stand toe-to-toe with their derby rivals. There is never any shame in taking a point, but lament for failing to grab all three is understandable.

Arnautovic does return, but it will be interesting to see just how effective he is as a hold-up forward since West Ham are lacking a defined playmaker without the injured Jack Wilshire to get him the ball. The matchup on the right as West Ham attacks between Yarmolenko and Luke Shaw will be one to watch given how Manchester United are still not a completely cohesive unit at the back and rely more on De Gea’s shot-stopping skills than actual defending.

A better opponent could have caught out United on this game amid the media circus, but even with their mini resurgence, West Ham are not that side at this moment. It will be another day Mourinho keeps the wolves at bay, but whether Pogba helps is the million-pound question.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham United 0, MANCHESTER UNITED 1.

OTHER MATCH DAY 7 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (4-0-2) vs. Watford (4-1-1)
Newcastle United (0-2-4) vs. Leicester City (3-0-3)
Wolverhampton (2-3-1) vs. Southampton (1-2-3)
Chelsea (5-1-0) vs. Liverpool (6-0-0)