Tomorrow sees West Ham’s first meeting of the campaign against one of last season’s three promoted clubs. In normal circumstances this would be seen as a great opportunity to put some points on the board but Wolves, along with Fulham, have a level of financial backing that would suggest something more than attritional backs-to-the-wall survival is on the radar.
Wolves have, to date, bucked the trend of Chinese investment in English football by embarking on an impressive run of success while for the others its has all gone lychee shaped. Owners, Fosun International (“creating happier lives for families worldwide”), are a multinational investment conglomerate headed by one of the wealthiest men in China with interests ranging from asset management, insurance, real estate and entertainment. With the company earning over a billion US dollars in profit every six months, shortage of funds is not going to be an issue should the owners wish to invest even further.
Under the guidance of magnificently bearded Nuno Espirito Santo, Wolves record this season is two home draws, against Everton and Manchester City, and one, reportedly unlucky, away defeat to Leicester. Like the Hammers they are seeking their first league win of the season this weekend. I watched much of the Wolves – Manchester City match last week in which the hosts played a compact 3-4-3 formation; worked hard for each other and were quick and dangerous on the break. The did get the rub of the refereeing decisions (their goal looked both offside and hand-ball) but on the evidence it will certainly be another stiff test for Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
The West Ham versus Wolves rivalry extends beyond sixty matches but this will be only the fifth meeting in the Premier League. On the last occasion the two teams met it in a league it was a bottom of the table clash on New Year’s Day, 2011 when a Freddie Sears goal sealed a 2-0 victory that dumped Wolves into bottom spot and took the Hammers to a season high 15th. As we all know to well, by the end of the season fortunes had been reversed as the Hammers bid their most recent farewell to the top flight.
It was a welcome midweek EFL cup win for West Ham (and defeat would have been a further shock to confidence levels) but it is impossible to read too much into a performance against hard-working but ordinary League 1 opposition, who spent much of the game a man down. I doubt that the manager learned anything new as far as this weekend’s team selection is concerned, except that those who might have been hoping to stake a claim for selection (Obiang, Perez and Ogbonna) were unable to take advantage.
From a defensive viewpoint, the only certainty is that Lukasz Fabianski will return to the keeper’s jersey. Beyond that I suspect that Pellegrini will stick with Fabian Belbuena and Issa Diop as centre backs. The Declan Rice situation is a puzzles that to me he looks every inch a central defender and, even though he may have done OK (as a defensive midfielder) against AFC Wimbledon and in a handful of meaningless friendlies for the Republic of Ireland, he has tended to look lost there against more capable and dynamic opposition. The only upside is that he is well placed to drop back into a back three as required – but, then again, that is where I would start him in the first place.
It is a toss-up with the choice of full-backs between the attack minded Ryan Fredericks and Arthur Masuaku or the more defensive Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell. There may even be a case to play both Cresswell and Masuaku (not both as left backs, obviously) bearing in mind the probable threat down that wing from either Costa or Traore. At times, Arthur has looked by far the most likely player to get behind an opposition defence.
In midfield, I am sure Pellegrini will again allow Felipe Anderson the freedom of a central attacking role following the clear improvement at Arsenal last week. This would mean Jack Wilshere (if selected) needing to drop deeper to partner Carlos Sanchez in front of the backline. I am not yet ready to jump onto the second coming Robert Snodgrass bandwagon although I am sure he will start on Saturday – getting the nod over Andriy Yarmolenko who, it seems, needs more work to achieve match fitness. Players need to do more than run around a lot and look busy, and Snodgrass has yet to deliver much in the way of true end product during his Hammer’s career.
West Ham’s fortunes may well end up resting on the fitness of Marko Arnautovic. Seeing him in the starting lineup would be a massive boost to confidence rather than having to rely on his understudy, Javier Hernandez. Perhaps, one day, Hernandez will surprise me but I still struggle to see how he can be used beyond being an impact substitution. If it is any consolation his compatriot, Jimenez, who will be leading the Wolves line carries little more threat – creating the prospect of a Mexican stand-off. Hopefully, the magic sponge man can work his wonders on Arnie’s knee.
The match referee has been announced as Chris Kavanagh from Lancashire. The website that likes to tells us each week whether this is good or bad news for West Ham, calls it as bad news on the basis that he was in charge of the FA Cup defeat at Wigan last season– ignoring the fact that he also ref’d the away league win at Leicester that finally confirmed Premier League survival.
Sky’s Paul Merson felt the Hammer’s played well at Arsenal last week and is predicting a 2-2 draw. At time of writing that lazy git Lawro has yet to share his views but I am guessing he will say 1-1. Given what has gone before and that run of still to come tough September fixtures then Saturday’s fixture takes on an added tension filled significance. Another defeat would leave us traumatised over the international break. I have to believe and keep the faith, both in Pellegrini’s abilities and in Arnie’s knee. I think that we can shade this one by the odd goal in three. Two of Wolves three league opponents this season have been reduced to ten men; a warning, perhaps, that discipline is required all round.