Having picked up seven of nine points from a run of games where the majority had given the Hammers little chance, they now travel to face a Brighton side in a match where the law of big money should point to West Ham success more often than not. That ignores, however, the Hammer’s historic propensity to stumble badly (perhaps in a misplaced sense of complacency) in the wake of the optimism that follows a string of good results. Just as the equivalent fixture last season put an end to a six game unbeaten run in the league by David Moyes’ side.
In fact, although the overall record against Brighton looks good on the surface this most reflects bygone non-league and war-time cup encounters. In the senior leagues it is the Seagulls that have the upper hand and, in the very top flight, West Ham have won only once in the six meetings to date – a 2-1 win (Cottee, Dickens) at Upton Park in March 1983.
Last season, West Ham charitably donated six of Brighton’s forty league points as well as six of their thirty four league goals. When the two sides met at the Amex Stadium in February this year, the home side ran out 3-1 winners but only three Hammers (Mark Noble, Pablo Zabaleta and Declan Rice) from that game are likely to be on show again tonight.
With no fresh injury worries there can be no debate about Manuel Pellegrini’s starting lineup tonight. Any changes to the formation that has worked so well since being introduced at the Everton game would be a big surprise. Whether by accident or design the manager has hit upon a system that suits the players available, giving them the freedom to demonstrate their particular talents and to play a style of football that is finally worth the admission money. Provided that key players stay fit and over-confidence is kept at bay then I see no reason why it cannot continue to pay dividends. The squad still has a flimsy look in certain positions but everything is looking a whole lot rosier than it was before the last international break.
No matter what system a team plays there will always be comparative weakness somewhere in its make-up that opposition team will seek to exploit. For West Ham, it is the amount of space that we allow attacking players down the flanks. It is a delicate balance as to how much support wide attacking players should give to the full-backs without restricting attacking ambitions. Keeping the shape seems to work better on the right hand side where Andriy Yarmolenko tracks back effectively despite a few chaotic attempts to clear the danger. On the left, however, the shape has been a lot less compact and it will be a key battle tonight to see how how well Arthur Masuaku, Pedro Obiang and Felipe Anderson collectively nullify the threat from the pacey Knockaert. The Obiang role is rather confusing involving as it does a lot of running and closing down but relatively few touches. It is interesting that in the last two games his average position has been further forward than that of Anderson.
Brighton may well have been many people’s tip for relegation at the start of the season but have shown enough spirit and organisation to suggest that they can survive for a second season. There are certainly more than three worse teams in the Premier League at the moment. Home form will again be important to them and they will surely be targeting a return from tonight’s fixture.
The absence of Gross is a big blow for Chris Hughton (and a bonus for West Ham) but the Seagulls may be able to welcome back Colombian Izquierdo, a player who did little last season other than embarrass the Hammers on two occasions. One would assume that the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership would be too strong to be bothered by veteran striker Murray, but having written him off several times in the past I will reserve any critical judgement of his threat and abilities for the time being. It is a surprise that Murray never featured in the long list of failed West Ham striker signings but you just know, if he had, he would have been turning out, a broken man, in the National League by now. Instead he has had a new lease of life mixing it with the best on the south coast.
The matchday referee is Kevin Friend from Leicestershire who takes charge of his second Brighton game of the season, the previous one being the home side’s victory at home to Manchester United. Friend is one of the lower key Premier League referees and one of the least likely to go around waving red cards.
Neither of our favourite pundits have foreseen a West Ham win tonight and, while Merson predicts a 2-2 draw, Lawro has the Hammers stumbling to a 2-1 defeat. A win by more than two goals will see West Ham clamber into the league’s top ten, at least temporarily, at the expense of Manchester United. It will by no means be an easy game but using the power of positive thinking to will us above Mourinho’s miscreants I will be predicting a 4-1 win.