I hear a lot in the football media these days about momentum. A team goes on a winning run and commentators describe how they can benefit positively from the effects of positive momentum in their next match. Similarly a team that are 1-0 ahead and dominating a game can react negatively when the opposition scores an equaliser with the stadium clock showing 44 minutes: 46 seconds as Burnley did last Saturday. All the talk was how Burnley would benefit from the positive momentum they would gain from the late first half goal, and how West Ham’s heads would be down as the second half got underway. Did this actually happen, or was the manager able to reverse the effect of the psychological momentum gained by the opposition when he gave his half-time team talk?
On many occasions in the past I’ve seen West Ham fold after a negative event such as conceding a goal or having a player sent off, but that hasn’t seemed to happen as much in recent times. Of course we are not in on what the manager and his staff say to the team but I give him credit for developing a more positive attitude amongst the West Ham players, and their reaction when something goes wrong. For example, we conceded a late goal just before half time after coasting to a 2-0 lead at Everton, and on previous occasions I would have expected us to surrender the initiative to the opposition when the second half got underway. But we didn’t.
At Leicester, Mark Noble was sent off after we had taken the lead, but we didn’t let our heads drop, and put up a tremendous rearguard action before falling unluckily to a deflected shot just before the end. But even then, the spirit in the side was such that we went forward and could (probably should) have snatched a late winner if Ogbonna had kept his composure.
Perhaps a good example of positive momentum is the case of Michail Antonio two or three years ago. For a while his confidence was high, and it seemed he couldn’t stop scoring goals, especially headed ones. At one time he had scored with as many headers in a year as any footballer in the Premier League. He found the net with the headed equaliser in the last game at Upton Park v Manchester United, and then with the winner in our first league game at the London Stadium against Bournemouth. For a time he was almost unplayable, and a lot of people forget that he was Hammer of the Year in 2016-17, after finishing runner-up to Payet the year before. He got into national squads with both Allardyce and Southgate as England manager, although he never won a cap. The positive momentum seemed to disappear after he was continually played out of position at right back, and then had some injuries, and he has never been the same since.
So does psychological momentum in football actually exist? Can it be backed up by statistical analysis? Or if it does exist, can the opposition negate it by being prepared better? Both West Ham and Huddersfield go into this match with positive momentum. Our performance and victory over Burnley was widely acclaimed, whereas Huddersfield managed their first win of the season (and even their first goal at home) in the 1-0 win over Fulham on Monday night. They are one of the bookmakers’ favourites for relegation, whereas we are now pulling away from the bottom after collecting eleven points from our last seven games, following the “pointless” opening four matches.
In addition to their win over Fulham, Huddersfield have picked up three further points this season with a goalless draw at home to Cardiff, and 1-1 draws at Everton and Burnley. Five goals scored and twenty-one conceded is not good, but will the momentum gained from their win lead to better times? One thing that struck me when I watched the closing stages of Monday night’s game was how both the Huddersfield players and the supporters celebrated after the final whistle. You would expect them to be on a high, but the sight of a team all joining hands and running towards the crowd in jubilation is one normally reserved for winning a trophy, not a single game of football. It did seem rather over the top to me, but if they have such positive celebrations for that win, then how will they top it if they beat us?
All of our players had decent games last weekend, especially in an attacking sense. I really enjoyed the game and the atmosphere was great, even remaining positive when we were twice pulled back. The only slight disappointment was conceding the two goals and very nearly a third. In particular the second equaliser direct from a corner was one that should have been averted, especially with better preparation in terms of marking their players who are most dangerous in the air (including substitutes!). For me, Anderson had his best game in a claret and blue shirt, and what a prospect young Diangana is! Arnautavic dominated their defenders, but unusually for him was unselfish at times when he might have done better by shooting himself. Snodgrass and Obiang put in the yards in the middle of the pitch, and Rice gets better every time I see him, this time totally controlling so much of the play, both defensively and then setting up the next attack.
If everyone is fit I would expect the same starting eleven for this game, but with our recent injury record how likely is this? Apparently even Carroll (remember him) and Wilshere are likely to be available for our next home game against Manchester City in a fortnight. Yes, we have to wait two weeks for the next game because of the third international break of the season even though only twelve Premier League games will have been played by each team. The football authorities who plan the timing of fixtures certainly know how to destroy the momentum of the domestic season with these continual interruptions for international football. I can’t speak for football fans as a whole, but personally my only interest in games played by the national side is when we are taking part in the World Cup or European Championship Finals tournaments. The new format for European qualification with these mini-leagues hasn’t hit the mark for me and I look forward to the return of the domestic game in two weeks, with no further international breaks until much later in the season.
The quality of our opposition this week is reflected in the bookmakers’ odds where we are generally around 5/4 favourites to win the game. That is very rarely the case for a West Ham team at any time, especially away from home. The draw is second favourite at around 21/10, with a Huddersfield home victory on offer at around 5/2. These are often the types of game where West Ham sides have slipped up in the past, but I am confident that it won’t happen this time. I predict a relatively comfortable victory by one or two goals to nil. My forecast of a 4-3 win over Burnley ended up nearer to actually happening than I would have thought at half-time, but this time around I don’t expect as many goals. On average this season, Huddersfield score a goal every other game, and concede twice. I expect this average to be maintained in this game.