We’re Gonna Score One More Than You!

Dusting of my bobble hat and polishing the rattle for a season where attempting to outscore the opposition makes a welcome return over hoping not to lose.

With the transfer window slamming shut and the Premier League season starting in the course of two days, the scene is set for the mother of all media frenzies – Sky sources will be going beserk.  As usual, the close season has witnessed a host of managerial comings and goings and vast sums of money exchanged for both exciting and mediocre players.  Some are certain to shine while others are sure to fail.  Everyone has spent big, optimism is widespread but ultimately three clubs will still be relegated.  At the top the slate is wiped cleaned, but there is almost universal consensus for a two horse race between Manchester City and Liverpool.

Meanwhile at the London Stadium something very strange has been happening – as if the owners suddenly discovered the PIN for their ATM card and decided to dip deeply into their pockets.  Even the most curmudgeonly anti-Board critics must find it difficult to complain about the scale of the summer’s transfer activity; although there is still the stadium, the design of the third kit and the sleeve advertisements to moan about.

At last, the much needed and belated squad overhaul has taken place with a vengeance.  Whether this is a one-off reaction to keep the season ticket cash register ticking over or part of a longer term investment strategy remains to be seen.  Rumours persist, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, for several more arrivals before Thursday’s deadline but, even now, looking at the attacking talent available in the squad makes some of us moist with anticipation.

New manager Manuel Pellegrini promises a new expansive approach and style of play that could prove the perfect antidote to the dour pragmatism of recent seasons.  How quickly the Hammers can adjust to these changes (and the new arrivals to the frenetic pace of the Premier League) will only become apparent over time.   Can the new boys hit the ground running, will it take a while to build telepathic understandings, and what is a realistic expectation for West Ham in the 2018/19 Premier League season?

There is a very strong correlation between the wealth of a club and their probable finishing position in the league.  On that basis, the top six places are already spoken for – although it is not unknown for any individual club to experience a wobble in a given season.  That would leave the Hammers fighting it out with the likes of Everton and maybe Leicester (or Wolves) as leaders of the chasing pack.  If it was me setting targets then I would be looking at between sixth (with the most favourable of following winds) and tenth; worse than tenth would be a failure and the idea of another relegation haunted season is unthinkable.

However, I think many of us would prioritise entertaining football, a good cup run and being prepared to give it a go against the big boys above any particular league position.  From what I saw of pre-season I am confident that can look very good in possession but fear a continued vulnerability without the ball – particularly exposed through the middle against marauding or fast breaking attacking sides.  Defensive midfield has become the new right-back where the club and management have been slow or reluctant to address a long perceived weakness.  Perhaps a solution can be found in the next day or so.  In any case we are in a much better position now in attempting to outscore the opposition, even if it means conceding a few in the process.  Hoping not to lose should no longer be the game plan.

From experience, we know that any discussion about the Hammer’s strongest line-up when everyone if fit is a purely theoretical exercise.  Nevertheless, speculation is always fun.

I see little between the two keepers but suspect the Number One spot will be Fabianski’s to lose.

In defence, Pellegrini prefers a back four and I will be interested to see which of the various permutations best suits this set up.  On the left both Cresswell and Masuaku have been better at going forward than in defending and are possibly more suited to a wing back role than as traditional full-backs.  Across the other side of the park, Fredericks looks certain to be first choice and has looked electric going forward (I am, as yet, unfamiliar with his defensive prowess) while Zabaleta is a useful backup.  The centre of defence would then be any two of Ogbonna, Diop, Balbuena and Rice.  It may take some time to establish the optimum pairing but believe it will be Ogbonna and Diop who get the shout from day one.

Defensive midfield options are currently a choice from Obiang, Noble and Rice and I expect Pellegrini to be looking to select two of these.  Each has their own limitations in a role expected to protect the back four, win possession cleanly and move the ball forward quickly.  Noble will continue to be an important figure around the squad but unless he can be fitted with a new pair of legs before the weekend I am not convinced that he can still operate effectively at this level – more than happy to be proved wrong though.  Rice is a great prospect but it would be a case of a central defender playing, out of position, in midfield to my view.

This year’s attacking options provide some mouth-watering options.  Pole positions (subject to any late additions) must be Wilshire, Anderson, Yarmolenko and Arnautovic with Hernandez and Antonio (if he stays) as backup.  There may be a case for starting with Hernandez as part of a two up top on some occasions but only in matches where one of the two defensive midfielders can be sacrificed.  A prediction from all of that is for Arnie to set a new Premier League goals in a season record for the Hammers – eclipsing the current 16 by Di Canio in 1999/2000.

Of the departures it was sad to see Reece Burke go.  He is the modern day Eliot Ward and I can see him making a return to the top level later in his career. It was also time for Kouyate to move on, even though he was nowhere near as bad as some made out – who will replace him as the whipping boy?

I have very high hopes for the season but then again this is not a brand new sensation.  This time, more than any other time, maybe they can be at least partially fulfilled.

2018-19 – A new campaign for West Ham to move to the next level?

A new manager, new backroom staff, many new players, and let us hope for a better season. But is it enough to move on to the next level? What are the odds?

We ended last season at the London Stadium in style with an emphatic win over Big Sam’s Everton. It was the end of Big Sam and also signalled the end of David Moyes following his short tenure as our manager. He did what he came here to do (to ensure we were not relegated) and was no doubt paid handsomely for it. The owners felt that we needed a change to “take us to the next level” and Manuel Pellegrini was installed as the new boss.

Premier League clubs voted for a shortened transfer window this time around, and may have shot themselves in the foot with the window elsewhere remaining firmly open whilst the weather remains warm until the end of the month, enabling foreign raids on our clubs until then. The general consensus among Hammers fans is that this has been one of our better windows, and the owners certainly seem to have dug deeper in their pockets this time around with the hope of avoiding the calamities of the last two seasons. Who would have thought when the last season ended that West Ham would buy more players than there would be days when it rained in the close season?

But can we reach the “next level”? What exactly is the “next level”? If you study the odds on offer among the vast array of bookmakers throughout the country then there is a certain similarity of where they all believe clubs will finish in the Premier League. Not surprisingly, Manchester City are odds on to retain the title and Liverpool are clear second favourites at 4/1. Then come Manchester United 7/1, Chelsea 12/1, Tottenham 14/1 and Arsenal 25/1. So that’s the top six sorted. Same as last time, the same top six elite, the clubs with the biggest revenues will fill the top six places again. As predictable as ever according to the odds makers.

Following hot on the heels of the top six, well not exactly on the heels but trailing behind at a distance, bookmakers have four clubs all priced in the region of 250/1 to fill places 7-10. Those clubs are (in no particular order, because the order varies from bookmaker to bookmaker) Everton, Wolves, Leicester, and West Ham. So we are well fancied to finish in the top half, and even as high as seventh place, but will not realistically be challenging the elite six. I suppose you could call that the next level?

As a matter of interest the next four clubs are priced generally in the 500/1 to 750/1 bracket – Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Burnley. And finally the bottom six in the betting market at odds of between 750/1 up to 2000/1 are Bournemouth, Brighton, Fulham, Watford, Huddersfield and Cardiff.

Of course the aim of all fourteen clubs that make up the “also-rans” in the Premier League should be to break into the top six, but unfortunately the aim of many is to secure at least seventeenth place for a return visit next season. I’d like to think that our goal is to consolidate a position comfortably in the top half of the table, with a target of finishing in seventh place, and hopefully finishing as close to the top six as possible. If you believe that we can force our way into the elite group then you can get odds of between 9/1 and 12/1 to achieve this. Now that really would be the “next level”!