With it being FA Cup weekend, there is only the remnants of a Premier League afternoon with just three uninspiring fixtures scheduled including the visit of doomed Huddersfield Town to the London Stadium. On paper this should be the most cast iron of banker home wins; yet the combined lack of motivation and consistency that has plagued Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham revolution leaves a niggling doubt in the dark recesses of the mind.
Following their spirited survival last season, Huddersfield have spent most of this one on life support to the point where it might have been kinder to all concerned if they had been able to forfeit the remainder of their games. When they parted company with promotion winning manager, David Wagner, early in the new year only the appointment of Tom Cruise or The Expendable could have given them any hope of escape. Still, for a team looking for chink of light at the end of a very long tunnel (if only to raise their spirits) then an encounter with the Hammers will often oblige.
Infected with the eternal, irrational, straw clutching optimism of the football supporter, I had been clinging to the hope that West Ham could somehow find sufficient momentum to launch a viable challenge for a seventh place finish. For me, however, that flicker of hope was finally extinguished in the dreadful performance at Cardiff last week – one of many tame away defeats to lower placed opposition that we have had to endure in recent months. As managers often do in these circumstances, Pellegrini has vowed to improve the awayday experience; but in truth his squad looks well short of the qualities needed to overcome resolute opponents. It is admirable that the manager is determined to play with a particular style and formation but sadly, it seems he doesn’t have the players to put his plans into practice in an effective and consistent manner. In particular, we easily lose shape and compactness when put under pressure – leaving the team exposed down the flanks and isolated in attack.
It would be a major surprise if we did not see several changes from the side that performed so feebly in Wales. In defence, there should be a welcome return to the Fabian Balbuena/ Issa Diop partnership (at the expense of Angelo Ogbonna) plus a possible recall for Pablo Zabaleta in place of Ryan Fredericks. By default, Aaron Cresswell will continue at left back.
The centre of midfield continues to be an obvious weakness despite the season long heroic performances of Declan Rice. Based on last week’s showing maybe Samir Nasri will get the nod over Manuel Lanzini while skipper Mark Noble will probably keep his place to make up the numbers. There is not a lot to choose between Noble and Pedro Obiang especially considering there is precious little leadership demonstrated on the pitch right now – at least not in the face of adversity!
In the more advanced positions, surely we will, at long last, see the return of Marko Arnautovic, in place of Javier Hernandez; supported by Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio on the flanks. Antonio has been very unfortunate to find himself on the bench after recent performances and is capable of posing more of a threat to Huddersfield than Robert Snodgrass. While Anderson has not been at his best in recent weeks the team was still very much poorer after he was substituted at half time last week.
Just so that he doesn’t feel left out, soon to be HOTY, Lukasz Fabianski, will continue with his undisputed run between the goalposts.
Perhaps there is now an opportunity to give at least some game time to a number of the young players who have been training with the first team squad. I would particularly be keen to get a look at Nathan Holland who, from my admittedly limited viewing, has looked a more complete player, at current stage of development, than Grady Diangana. Another opportunity to see Ben Johnson would also be interesting.
As well as experiencing a lengthy run of poor form on the pitch, Huddersfield are also now suffering badly in the injury room. A long list of injuries includes Durm, Depoitre, Diakhaby, Duhaney, Hogg and Mbenza. Their main problem during two seasons in the Premier League has been the failure to score goals and a toothless terrier is not really any threat. Despite this, they do have several useful players; notably Billing and Pritchard.
Anyone looking for additional entertainment this afternoon will be able to watch overweight West Yorkshire referee Jonathan Moss in his struggle to keep up with play. Didn’t there used to be a fitness test for refs? Moss was last seen at the London Stadium for the win against Arsenal.
As they did last week, the BBC and Sky pundits are banking on a comfortable Hammer’s win – Lawro by 2 – 0 and Charlie Nicholas, standing in for the absent Paul Merson, by 3-0. Despite my concerns that the remainder of the season could become two months of going through the motions, I do expect a routine victory today. Home form at the London Stadium has been very strong (one defeat in the last nine games) and it would be remarkable if the Hammers let this one slip. Just to be perverse we are sure to concede a goal but still run out as 4-1 winners.