When I first started following professional football more seriously as a boy, when my preferred bedtime reading was the Playfair Football Annual, Burnley were one of the top sides in the English league. At the time I would have been able to recite their preferred line-up from memory; which started something like Blacklaw, Angus, Elder, Adamson and so on. They had won the old First Division in 1960 and were runners-up in both league and cup in the 1961-62 season. It is fair to say that times have changed dramatically since those days when even Tottenham Hotspur didn’t choke in the final furlong.
Nowadays, most Hammers probably regard Burnley as one of the minions of the Premier League (and in financial terms they languish some way behind West Ham) and yet they sit comfortably in 7th place with the luxury of looking down leisurely at the frantic scramble below them for top flight survival. Much of the credit for the new found stability must go to gravelly voiced manager, Sean Dyche, the most famous product from Kettering since Weetabix. Burnley sensibly stuck with Dyche following relegation in 2015 and, following a quick return, they have emerged as a hard working, difficult to beat Premier League outfit. There are many parallels with Fat Sam’s old Bolton Wanderers side but with several shades less negativity.
In contrast, things are so bad at West Ham at the moment that it feels like the club must have collectively got out of the wrong side of the bed at the start of the season. A mini-revival in fortunes at the 2017 has faded and died and there is now the very real danger of relegation haunting the London Stadium. The Hammers appear to have hit a wretched run of form at just the wrong time. Mark Noble writing on the official West Ham website has told us not to worry and that everything will be OK. I am not sure if those are reassuring words or cause for even more worry by what could be taken as a show of complacency. What is needed is a fight and commitment shown by a team who know they are in a very perilous position. The current off-field disenchantment around the club doesn’t help either and it has created a toxic environment that must have a knock-on effect to the players. Not that there are not genuine grievances that, until now, have fallen on deaf ears in the boardroom. But I do wonder whether now is the right time to air them when the team need a united support to get them across the seventeenth position line. At least the threat of the march has disappeared but not without a degree of farce reminiscent of the splitters in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – the ‘Poplar’ Front of Judea maybe!
Head to Head
Although the all-time record against Burnley is close to neck and neck, the Hammers have bossed recent meetings having won eight of the last twelve (home and away) and ten of the last twelve home games. The last Burnley win was at Upton Park in December 2011 when the Clarets came from behind to win 2-1 and prevent the West Ham going to the top of the Championship. The most recent top flight Burnley win was a 2-1 victory at Turf Moor against Gianfranco Zola’s Hammers in February 2010.
In the reverse fixture in October the Hammers were on course for a welcome three points until the game changing and unnecessarily foolish sending off of Andy Carroll.
Apparently today is designated in the gaming community as Mario Day (on account of it being MAR10) and just maybe this is an omen for a super display from our Portuguese loanee who, so far, has flattered to deceive. At this stage of the season we need to clutch at any straw that is available.
After two feeble 4-1 reverses on the road we should expect to see several changes today. It would not surprise me if Joe Hart replace Adrian in goal although it is difficult to pin much blame on the Spaniard for recent performances. In the centre of defence we will need height to combat the visitors most dangerous threat. With Winston Reid (and Sam Byram) reported to be out for the season options are limited and the hope is that both Angelo Ogbonna and James Collins have recovered from their problems of last week. The presence of Aaron Cresswell in the back three always makes me nervous and especially so against a team who are strength is aerial power. Declan Rice deserves to keep his place but the dilemma is whether to play him at the back or as emergency central midfielder to cover for the continuing flaws in the Noble – Cheikhou Kouyate partnership.
In the more advanced positions there is a desperate need for width and surely Michail Antonio will be a starter this week. Unfortunately neither Pablo Zabaleta nor Patrice Evra can offer much of an offensive threat which maybe another argument for returning Cresswell to a left (wing) back role.
It is difficult to see how Javier Hernandez fits into the equation. Undoubtedly he is the best natural finisher at the club but usually offers little outside of the penalty area. Somehow fashioning Mark Arnautovic, Manual Lanzini, Antonio and Joao Mario into an effective attacking unit could be the best option of causing Burnley damage.
Burnely have their own injury problems and are reported to be without Arfield, Defour, Walters, Brady (who has frequently given the Hammers a torrid time) and keeper Heaton.
The Man in The Middle
Lee Mason from Greater Manchester controls his third Hammers match of the season with the previous two ending as 3-2 defeats: away at Southampton (where he sent off Arnautovic) and home to Newcastle. In his twenty outings this year his record is fifty-three yellow and three red cards.
The safest prediction of the week is that Lawro would have this down as a 1-1 draw. Merson, on the other hand, senses a West Ham reaction and a 2-0 home win. Burnley are not going to be worried about possession stats and will put the onus on West Ham to break them down. The usual laboured slow-slow predictable build up is not going get very far. Maybe we can hope for a little less desire from Burnley with thoughts shifting onto the summer holiday brochures after a job well done. In any case West Ham need to be fully up for today’s game and I will have everything crossed to take anything from a scruffy win to a pedigree performance. Perhaps it will turn out to be an opportunity for Joao Mario to celebrate his special day by netting a glorious winner.