High flying Huddersfield Town roll into town tonight, for the season’s opening fixture at the London Stadium, looking for the win which could take them to the very top of the Premier League table. The Hammers, on the other hand, require victory by an equally unlikely six goal margin to lift themselves out of the relegation zone.
It is, of course, early days but Huddersfield manager, David Wagner, has the look of a man with a plan and an idea of how to implement it. His team have a system that relies on round peg players fitting into round hole responsibilities where everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and are both fit enough and disciplined enough to achieve it. Almost the polar opposite, in fact, of what we have been seeing from West Ham for the past year or so; aside from the notable odd occasion.
It would be difficult to imagine how the start to this season could have been any worse for the Hammers and the euphoria of what was meant to have been a fantastic transfer window is now a distant and illusory memory. Poor performances and results on pitch and an obvious lack of unity between board and manager have created a toxic environment that could go critical should there be the typical slow and ponderous start in Stratford tonight. I imagine the visitors would be very aware of the situation and keen to exploit the vulnerability.
Head to Head
Games against Huddersfield have not been a regular feature in West Ham’s calendar in recent years. In forty-one previous meetings, the Hammers have won eleven and lost twenty-two while the last twelve encounters (which include games as far back as 1958) have seen only three West Ham wins and seven defeats. It is a rosier picture at home where West Ham have won six (lost five) of the last twelve; although for that sequence you need to go back to games played during the Great Depression of 1929.
There are, of course, two aspects to the concept of being fit; those who are not missing due to injury and those who have the stamina and pace to last a ninety minute game of Premier League football. Focusing solely on the injury front, Manuel Lanzini and Edmilson Fernandes appear to be only definite non-starters while Marko Arnautovic serves the last of his three match ban. This means possible returns for Winston Reid and (pause for trumpet salute) the unplayable Andy Carroll. Trying to predict the starting lineup has become a pointless exercise given the disposition of the manager to come up with a formation and personnel that no-one else could possibly have thought of.
On paper, Bilic has the luxury of three fit strikers to choose from but with a fragile and sluggish central midfield and defence it is difficult to see how more than one can be accommodated at any one time, without the risk of further exposure. The most likely scenario is starting with Javier Hernandez as the lonesome striker, bringing Carroll on in a desperate late attempt to score and leaving Diafro Sakho to sulk on the bench.
“Andy Caroll is OK. He’s been training now for almost four weeks with us and he looks good. He is going to be in the squad definitely. OK, we are playing on Monday but he is back and will be there, definitely.”
– Slaven Bilic on the return of the prodigal.
There is a good chance we will see the return of Cheikhou Kouyate in a midfield, where Mark Noble is still curiously preferred to Pedro Obiang, with the versatile Andre Ayew ( where versatile means equally inept in any position) filling in for Lanzini. At least Reid returning to a probable back four is a welcome bonus. Whether Declan Rice gets a look in after his one mistake is anyone’s guess but my sense is that Bilic will see his inclusion as a gamble in such a must-win game (for him).
Huddersfield have no significant injury problems and will be fresh from the international break where, with few of the squad away on international duty, they went one better than us by cruising to a 3-0 victory against pre-season opponents Altona 93 in Hamburg.
The Man in the Middle
Making his third London Stadium appearance is Kevin Friend from Leicestershire. Friend was in charge of last season’s league defeat by Manchester City and the victory over Swansea. He was also the referee in the historic win at Anfield in 2015 where he mysteriously sent of Noble for doing very little. With officials continuing to make controversial game changing decisions let’s hope that he has a quiet game tonight.
Lawro has gone 2-1 for West Ham while Merson is also predicting the same result and scoreline. It is difficult to know what to expect when the league’s best defence (with no goals conceded) comes up against the worst (ten goals conceded). I don’t see a high scoring game and the only goal of the match could eventually be enough.
“We have our aim and our target on Monday, but I think we should be honest that in terms of the size, these are two different clubs.”
– David Wagner on West Ham match
Huddersfield will be full of spirit, confidence and pressing and with West Ham missing their only true creative force in Lanzini it will be a struggle for them to break down the opposition’s rearguard. The usual pattern of having lots of pointless possession in our own half would not be a surprise. From what I have seen of Huddersfield they do not possess a massive goal threat but they should not be under-estimated on the break.
What is not needed is a cautious start and an early home goal could completely change the complexion of the game and the atmosphere inside the stadium. The longer that the visitors can frustrate the more the barely concealed negativity is likely to spread.
I never want West Ham to lose a game but you do have to wonder whether defeat (and a new manager) might not be in the best interests of all concerned. I would be happy to take a three or four goal romp and heap bounteous praise on the manager accordingly; on the ether hand but a scrambled win (like last year’s wins over Hull and Burnley) would leave us stuck in that limbo land where we have spent too much of our existence. I will assume my position on the fence and predict a 1-1 draw.