15 April 2014

Against West Ham, who's the assassin we'll have to watch?

He's a former Gunner, having played for the academy at age 11. Does this give Mark Noble added insight, skill, or confidence coming into the Emirates on Tuesday? We've sized up Mohamed Diamé and mocked Andy Carroll, but midfielder Mark Noble may just be the one to keep a close eye on. He may look more like an accountant than a footballer, but make no mistake—he's very much at the center of what West Ham do both defensively and offensively.  I know that Arsène does not make it a habit to study or make allowances for his opponents' tendencies, but, for as much as we might look forward to and, indeed, need a win, accounting for his whereabouts and influence would go a long way towards securing that win.

After all, he was strong against us in December when West Ham managed to sneak out to a 1-0 lead before succumbing 1-3. Along the way, Noble led the Hammers in key passes (2), touches (73), successful dribbles (2), tackles (2), interceptions (5), shots blocked (2), and passes (56), and one of those were one-off accomplishments; on a per-game basis, he leads the squad in tackles (2.8), interceptions (1.9), successful dribbles (1.4), and key passes (1.5), and is very much the heart and foundation of West Ham's set-up. I don't mean to suggest any of this to inspire fear, simply to suggest that it's wise to know what to look for in order to know where it's coming from.

Lining up as a defensive midfielder in West Ham's 4-2-3-1, Noble will likely operate against Podolski, Källström, and Vermaelen, a trio of players who haven't spent much time together on the pitch and, with the potential exception of Källström, potential liabilities at the defensive end. Podolski, should he start on the left, may find it difficult to operate as he usually does; between West Ham's propensity for defending deep and in numbers, he won't have much room to roam on the flank, and he's unlikely to channel any resulting frustrations or unspent energy into tracking back, leaving Källström to learn on the fly. Vermaelen will likely be preoocupied with Carroll waiting around for the ball to find his head, and so Källström, playing opposite Noble, will have to be alert to how well Noble can break up plays and initiate counters. Noble offers his side some gritty defending but also some very aggressive forward-thinking play; think of him perhaps as similar to Steven Gerrard but as a deeper-lying defender.

Of course, the broader concern is fitness. West Ham come in on a nine-day break while we played 120 minutes just three days ago. Källström, should he play, is still finding his legs and his role with Arsenal after the January transfer. Having only played about 20 minutes, his match-legs and may be fresh but may also suffer from rust. Along with the rest of the squad, Källström will need a strong start to put West Ham on their heels early; the longer it takes us to break down Noble and the rest of their defensive set-up, the more opportunities Noble will find going forward to start spraying passes up towards Carroll. Working past Noble can break down the Hammers' defensive resistance, and this in turn should open things up considerably against a squad that has ambitions of nicking a point or three on Tuesday.