Whether or not the New Year turns out to be a happy one or not is largely dependent for many of us on how well our football team performs. In a comparative sense, we start 2018 with a very low bar to raise as one of the worst performing teams in the Premier League for the 2017 calendar year – in fact only today’s visitors, West Bromwich Albion, experienced a worse record in 2017 with just seven wins in twelve months to West Ham’s ten.
January is always an odd month in the football year where ongoing on-field struggle competes for attention in the media and for fans with the unrelenting transfer window frenzy. This is particularly the case for those clubs making their push as gallant runners-up to Manchester City and those teetering close to the Championship precipice (or is it an abyss), as is the case for today’s two participants. Two days into the window and with still no new signings to get excited about, the Hammers will need to see off Albion using only their existing resources plus the newly recalled, but reportedly want-away, Reece Oxford.
The Premier League manager merry-go-round sees the return today of former West Ham boss Alan Pardew. Pardew’s time at the Hammer’s helm is most fondly remembered for his slogans and the 2006 FA Cup Final rather than the hard slog he made of scrambling back into the Premier League and his inability to integrate two world class Argentinians into his team. He has experienced a largely lacklustre career since his departure where a pattern of early promise followed by disappointment has been the order of the day. Given their current predicament we are unlikely to witness a side demonstrating much of a change from the muscular and uncompromising Pulis incarnation tonight, but then I have always seen Pardew as the slightly more presentable graduate of the Allardyce/ Pulis coaching academy anyway.
Head to Head
A 4-0 West Ham win today would even matters up nicely in the head to head record books giving each team forty wins out of 105 matches played, and an equal number of goals scored to boot. Both teams have won three of the last twelve encounters (home and away) and the same record applies to the last twelve games played in London. The last four West Ham home games with Albion have been draws and you have to go back to November 2003 for the last Albion victory – by four goals to three in a game that saw a sulking Jermaine Defoe red carded.
Sam Byram, Jose Fonte and Edmilson Fernandes are all missing for West Ham while Mark Noble and Michail Antonio are doubtful. From what remains, David Moyes must fashion a team that is defensively sound while carrying enough guile and threat to break down what will be a resolute and obdurate opponent. It is a management challenge that is currently without an obvious answer in a squad that lacks a strong, mobile front-man and is fragile in the centre of midfield. Our best chance comes in the form of Manuel Lanzini but whether Moyes will trust one of the nominal strikers Javier Hernandez, Diafra Sakho or Andy Carrol to lead the attack or use either Marko Arnautovic or Andre Ayew for that role remains to be seen. My guess is that Hernandez will get the nod with Arnie joining Lanzini as attacking midfielders and Pedro Obiang and Cheikhou Kouyate just behind. Maybe there will be a change or two at the back where Aaron Cresswell as part of a back three will be increasingly vulnerable as teams target him in the air. Once again Moyes might put out a side that looks adequate enough OK on paper it is likely to be quite unbalanced all the same.
Albion play their second game in three days and should (hopefully) be the less fresh of the two teams. They may be without Rondon, Chadli and Morrison.
Man in the Middle
The referee today, making his first West Ham appearance of the season, is Mike Jones from Chester. Jones took charge of two Hammer’s away defeats in 2016/17 – at Manchester United in the EFL Cup and Hull in the Premier League.
In 15 outings this season he has shown 1 red and 53 yellow cards. With refereeing decisions continuing to have an undue impact on the outcome of games we wish Mr Jones a peaceful and drama free start to the year.
No surprise that Lawro is firmly entrenched on his fence seeing this as yet another 1-1 game. Merson on the other hand believes it is back to winning ways for the Hammers with a 2-1 win. This really is a game we should and need to win if we are going to secure a more comfortable position in the congested lower half of the Premier League table. In theory there should be few easier games than at home to an out-of-form Albion side. Sheer blind optimism prompts me to believe that we will shade the game by a couple of goals but I remain unconvinced that we can effectively take the initiative without get suckered on the counter-attack. Fingers and toes are crossed.