Can West Ham close the Watford Gap?

Can the Hammers hammer the hornets? A preview of Watford’s visit to the London Stadium that doesn’t have a single reference to the transfer window or the apparent growing unrest with the board.

The Premier League is the most popular league in the world in terms of spectators and media appeal yet we all knew who would win the title after just a few short weeks of the season. And before the season started we all knew which teams would occupy the top six places, even if we weren’t exactly sure as to the exact order they would finish in. And as we all predicted, the top six places have gone to the “big six” in terms of the revenue that they generate, and I’ve no doubt the same will happen next season. OK, so there is still a mini competition taking place to see which clubs will finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League, but in reality the most “popular” league in world football is so predictable, and it all comes down to money.

We are not alone. The “generally recognised” big five European Leagues have all turned out as expected. Manchester City’s 13 point lead in England is well beaten by Bayern’s massive 18 point advantage in Germany. PSG are 11 ahead in France, Barcelona are 9 clear in Spain, and the only competition for the title outright is in Italy where Napoli and Juventus are just one point apart, although 13 clear of the pack. Season after season the same teams qualify for the latter stages of the Champions League. It is all so predictable. And as a result, it is becoming boring.

For me the most interesting aspect of the Premier League is not who is going to win it, or even qualify for Europe, but the real competition involves the 14 teams who have no chance of winning, and little likelihood of qualifying for a place in the Champions League. If the predictability continues then perhaps the top six teams can be ignored, and a trophy can be awarded to the team that finishes 7th? The competition among those 14 teams is fierce, and the battle to avoid finishing in the bottom three is (sadly) by far the most exciting part of the Premier League. For a long time now there has been talk of European Leagues whereby all the top clubs in Europe ignore their domestic competitions and take part in Europe alone. I’m surprised that it hasn’t yet happened. If we removed the top six teams from the Premier League the competition for the title among the remainder would be a far more open affair. Would we miss playing them? I for one would not. I suspect that the same would be true of all the other top European leagues.

So, getting back to this season, with just 12 games to go Burnley lead the chase for the “seventh place title” on 36 points, just one ahead of Leicester, who in turn are then four clear of Bournemouth and Everton. Today’s opponents Watford are just one point further back on 30, before the cluster of 9 clubs that make up the bottom portion of the table. Burnley and Leicester are as good as safe from relegation, whilst the three clubs below them are almost there, but not quite. Of the nine clubs that are seriously in the mix at the moment, we are at the top (12th) on 27 points, but only three points ahead of 19th placed Huddersfield. Only West Brom with 20 points are beginning to be cast adrift.

The closeness of the fight to avoid the drop makes for an interesting finale to the season, and every match from here to the end assumes massive importance. A win for us today will take us up level on points with Watford and edging closer to safety, whereas three points for the visitors would be a huge step towards ensuring Premier League football at Vicarage Road next season.

Recent form is often a good indicator of what is likely to happen, but this can be distorted by other factors such as the strength and form of opposition, and whether games have been played at home or away. Nonetheless it is worth taking a look at the bottom 12 with a dozen games to go and look at how many points they have picked up in recent matches. I’ve chosen the last 5 fixtures for each team, which in itself may or may not be a reliable indicator of the term “recent”.

The bottom 12 teams in the Premier League after 26 games Points after 26 games Current Goal Difference Points in last 5 games
  9. Bournemouth 31 -7 11
10. Everton 31 -16 4
11. Watford 30 -8 5
12. West Ham 27 -14 6
13. Brighton 27 -14 5
14. Crystal Palace 27 -15 8
15. Southampton 26 -10 6
16. Newcastle 25 -12 6
17. Swansea 24 -18 8
18. Stoke City 24 -26 4
19. Huddersfield 24 -27 0
20. West Brom 20 -16 4

Based on the recent form table alone then the current bottom three would be the ones playing in the Championship next season. As they include two teams that I dislike the most (West Brom and Stoke) then I wouldn’t be unhappy with that outcome. Our final twelve games comprise 7 at home and 5 away. Five of the 12 games are against sides in the bottom 12 (above), with four of them at home (Watford, Southampton, Stoke, Everton) and one away (Swansea). These games are crucial to our survival and are true six-pointers. It is important to win most of those games, and equally important to avoid defeat if we don’t pick up three points from each of them. Apart from the Swansea game, the other four away matches are against sides in the top eight (Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Leicester) so we are unlikely to collect many points from them. A home game against the champions elect (City) won’t be a walk in the park either, nor will two other home fixtures against top eight sides (Manchester United and Burnley).

The importance of today’s game cannot be over-estimated. The gap between ourselves and Watford could be wiped out if we win, or extend to six points if we lose. Here are a ten factors to bear in mind in respect of this match, some of which are very worrying given West Ham’s predilection to allow other teams to end sequences of poor results:

  1. If we avoid defeat that will extend our unbeaten run in league and cup at home to five matches – that would be a record for the London Stadium!
  2. As a manager, David Moyes has never lost a home game against Watford.
  3. This will be our 14th game this season against a team who are currently above us in the table. The only game that we have won so far was at home to Chelsea. Nine of our final twelve games will be against teams currently in the 11 places above us in the table!
  4. Watford have only won one of their last ten away games.
  5. Watford have never beaten us twice in the league in a single season ever.
  6. Watford won their last game convincingly beating Chelsea 4-1. They haven’t won two league games in a row for more than three months.
  7. Michail Antonio has scored 6 goals in his last 7 games against Watford.
  8. Michail Antonio scored both of our goals when we lost 4-2 at home to Watford last season (September 2016). He hasn’t scored a goal at the London Stadium since!
  9. We have played a home league game against Watford before on February 10th (11 years ago). We lost 1-0.
  10. West Ham are 11/8 favourites to win the game, Watford are 15/8, with the draw at 23/10.

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