The only time I have ever read anything negative about Sir Trevor Brooking was the account of a fan who encountered the entire West Ham team on the London bound platform of Southampton Central station after a game at The Dell back in December 1971. Perhaps disillusioned after scoring but then being substituted by Dave Llewellyn in a 3-3 draw, Brooking was the only player who refused to autograph the then 12-year-old’s match programme. I don’t suppose, for a minute, that the team still travel by train to Southampton but was speculating as to whether the reason for only six substitutes on Thursday night was because Karen Brady had not bought enough Supersaver tickets (or collected enough Persil tokens) to get seats for the whole squad. Surely, even with the club’s lengthy injury list, there were other young players available who would have benefited from a first team match-day experience!
The decision to bounce the West Ham match at St Mary’s to the day after Boxing Day means that the Hammers continue to bat second during the holiday round of games. With the dust having settled on all of the Saturday matches there is now an opportunity for our boys to leap into seventh spot of the Premier League going into the New Year; a state of affairs that would have seemed fanciful in the first few weeks of the season. The ‘best of the rest’ tussle is usually an ever changing competition but ourselves, Wolves, Everton and, maybe, Leicester look to be the most likely contenders. Hopefully, any ambition that exists will have more staying power than a Tottenham title challenge.
Ironically, today’s opponents, Burnley, were the best of the rest from last season but in a complete reversal of fortunes now find themselves as the weakest but one link in the Premier League table. It was always destined to be difficult for a club of Burnley’s limited resources to sustain any momentum but the speed of their decline has been surprising. With Sean Dyche a graduate of the Fat Sam School Of Dour Percentage Football it is odd to see Burnley so porous in defence. After a run of poor results, Dyche will be looking to get his players fired up for today’s game while ensuring that defensive discipline is maintained. Today’s tasks for the Hammers will be to match Burnley physically, effectively repel their set piece aerial threat and find a way through or around a crowded defence.
Of the ten first team players who were absent in midweek, Pablo Zabaleta and Marko Arnautovic are reportedly to be assessed in late fitness tests, while Javier Hernandez is regarded as a major doubt. All the other invalids are said to be definitely unavailable.
If Zabaleta has recovered from illness he will most probably be the one defensive change from the Southampton game in place of Michail Antonio. Elsewhere, Felipe Anderson, Declan Rice and Robert Snodgrass are certain starters but after that selection becomes more problematic – either due to uncertainty over availability or failure to impress. Antonio deserves to keep a starting berth but where is it best to slot him in? Will Manuel Pellegrini want to start with both or only one out of Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang – each have their particular strengths but neither are able to fully orchestrate play, pull the midfield strings or switch play intelligently on a consistent basis. None of Lucas Perez, Grady Diangana or Andy Carroll did anything on Thursday that would stake a claim for a starting place: Perez doesn’t work hard enough; Carroll looked out of control; and Diangana needs to develop far greater strength before he can be considered for anything other than cameo roles.
In an ideal world, I would love to see the return of Arnautovic but fear it is too soon for him to be risked. There has been a lot of talk about Anderson being the new Payet but we do not need to become a one-man team once again; Arnie is well placed to divert some of that pressure. Perhaps a front three of Anderson, Arnautovic and Antonio would be a fearsome combination – at least the triple A’s shouldn’t run out of energy!
Burnley are likely to be without Brady, Lennon, Defour (all injured) and Lowton, who is serving a one match suspension. They will select two from their range of identikit strikers in an attempt to intimidate the West Ham defence.
By the time the next Hammer’s game comes around, West Ham may well have added Samir Nasri to their squad. If that happens it will be interesting to see how he is deployed – more likely as a deep lying playmaker rather than in an attacking wide midfield role which was more typical at Arsenal and Manchester City. Nasri is not a long term solution but he could be a short-term fix to an obvious gap in the make-up of the team.
Today’s referee is David Coote from Nottingham. He is a new one on me although he was, apparently, the fourth official at St Mary’s in the week. This will be only his fifth Premier League appointment of the season.
Lawro appears to have got stuck in a loop predicting 2-0 defeats for West Ham whereas Merson continues to be generally supportive, going for 3-1 away win. In a table based on Lawro’s predictions to date, West Ham would be in 15th place with 18 points, below both Fulham and Burnley. The Hammers have already broken their own record for most Premier League points in December and a sixth win of the month would extend that tally even further. I don’t see this be a free-flowing open game but if/ when West Ham get their noses in front anything could happen. A 2-0 win, first double of the season and sitting proudly in seventh place would make for a very happy new year in my world.