Having endured yet another enforced break for the international equivalent of the EFL cup it is back to real football action this weekend as West Ham face Harry Kane & his All Stars in a surprise 3 o’clock Saturday afternoon kick off at the London Stadium.
After performing with some distinction in the previous intra-break spell of Premier League football, until falling at the final hurdle at Brighton, this will be a stern test for Manuel Pellegrini in what many see as the biggest game of the season – or at least the one with the greatest ‘mustn’t lose’ factor.
As usual the visitors sit on the periphery of the title race. Solidly in the chasing pack but lacking that little extra something that would get them close to the winner’s enclosure. I have been an admirer of the managerial talents of Mauricio Pochettino as a tactician and organiser but with his team starved of transfer funds and previous recruitment having been uninspired, he will need to find fresher pastures if he wants to add trophies to the plaudits. If Tottenham had a chance of winning the Premier League title it would have been several years ago when they still had the element of surprise. Now the squad looks tired and in need of a significant makeover. On those occasions where they did invest they may have succeeded in improving squad depth but have not found those missing pieces required for success.
For Saturday’s game, West Ham will still be missing long term absentees Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid, Andy Carroll, Jack Wilshere, Javier Hernandez and Carlos Sanchez while there are fresh doubts over the fitness of Robert Snodgrass and Arthur Masuaku – both having picked up knocks while away on international duty. It was a surprise to see Marko Arnautovic turning out for Austria during the break given his apparent long running injury problems, but the signs are that he will be fit to start.
There have now been a couple of weeks to forget the disappointment of the south coast escapade and it will be interesting to see if Pellegrini is inclined towards any personnel changes from that night. The Brighton goal was a true team effort from West Ham with Pablo Zabaleta, Mark Noble, Andriy Yarmolenko, Fabio Balbuena, Issa Diop and Masuaku all implicated in its concession. Many social media observers pinned all of the blame on Masuaku and, while he should have at least made a token attempt to follow the run of Murray, I fear that it was too late by then to do anything about it other than giving away a penalty. Still with Arthur on the possibly injured list it may be an opportunity to give Aaron Cresswell another run out. Either way West Ham will continue to look exposed down that flank while it lacks adequate midfield reinforcement.
The goal aside, the Hammer’s greater failings at the Amex Stadium were a slow start and a lack of creativity in turning possession into sufficient goal-scoring opportunities. It is always puzzling how often the team manages to lack collective intensity before the half-time pep talk. Although the midfield threesome of Noble, Declan Rice and Pedro Obiang has worked well since its introduction at Everton, it is more suited to games where the opposition are looking to attack. To that extent it can do a job this weekend. Where it falls short is in providing the wit and variation to break down packed defences.
The visitors will be without Alli, Rose and Vertonghen but could welcome back Eriksen, Dembele and Wanyama – although with a midweek Champion’s League game on the horizon they may not all be risked. Tottenham always looked more solid to me with Dembele and Wanyama as the midfield anchors but, for some reason, the manager seems to prefer Dier and Sissoko – which is like trying to win an F1 race in a Ford Transit. South Korean draft dodger Son has often been a thorn in the Hammer’s side (as has any player prepared to run at us speed) but will probably have to make do with a place on the bench.
The referee for the afternoon is Martin Atkinson from West Yorkshire. Atkinson was in charge earlier this season for West Ham’s win at Goodison Park and also Tottenham’s opening day victory at Newcastle.
There is punditry alignment this week with both Paul Merson and Mark Lawrenson firmly on the fence for a 1-1 draw. The good thing about playing Tottenham is that motivation is unlikely to be an issue meaning that the requisite level of commitment and intensity should be apparent all around the ground. The worry as always will be to keep Kane quiet and cut off his supply from the full-backs. Assuming we can manage those defensive backs I am backing West Ham to run out as 2-0 winners.