London derby matches tend to be tense affairs at the best of times. Tonight, when Arsenal go to West Ham United’s London Stadium for a Premier League showdown, it will be even more so — for both sets of supporters. The Gunners, of course, head in to the game against the Hammers desperate to try to find a way out of the dismal run of form they have suffered of late. It was so poor that the powerbrokers who run the club decided to axe Spanish coach Unai Emery last week and in his place, for an interim period at least, is former Arsenal playmaker Freddie Ljungberg.
When Arsenal decided to sack Emery, the man they had chosen around 18 months ago to replace the long-serving Arsene Wenger, they finally bowed to the call from fans and critics to try to salvage the good name of the club, tarnished, as they saw it, by a catastrophic set of results. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the 2-1 reverse against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League. The next day Emery was gone and Ljungberg was in the hot seat. For the time being, His first game in charge was at lowly Norwich City and the Gunners came away with a point from a hard-fought game against the Canaries.
All eyes were then on the top-flight game at home to Brighton at the Emirates. Surely, this was a match in which Ljungberg could impose his coaching style and notch up a win for his career as temporary manager? Alas this was not the case and, if anything, the Gunners performed perhaps even worse than they had done under Emery. And, crucially, they lost 2-1.
The defence looked baffled at what they were being asked to do; the midfielders seemed lost as the Seagulls ran rings round them — and the strikers, in the shape of Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, appeared to be going through the motions (although to be fair to the former he did manage to get on the scoresheet).
Now the Reds face Manuel Pellegrini’s side in a crucial game, and the need for a face-saving win to boost their risible top-flight league standing of 11th. The hosts are 16th. It’s not quite a relegation battle, granted, but it’s more about gaining points to maintain a mid-table position than to push for the top four. Ljungberg, it is being reported by several national media outlets, is ready to ring the changes as far as his team selection is concerned. One player for whom the fans have been calling to get more game time is young Brazilian striker Gabriel Martinelli.
Another player who could do with more minutes on the pitch is record signing, at £72million in the summer from French outfit Lille, Nic Pepe. If both of these attackers feature tonight Arsenal might, just might, have a chance. Time will tell…