As West Ham prepared to take the field for last week’s game against Everton they knew that victory would have taken them up to 7th place in the Premier League and potentially eliminated one of their rivals in the race for potential Europa Cup qualification. It was a scenario more than should have provided more than sufficient motivation to a side which had, until recently, been enjoying a good positive spell at last at their home stadium.
What we got instead, however, was quite possibly the most abysmal performance of the season so far – even allowing for the fact that the bar isn’t set particularly high. In truth, for all the optimism that might have existed, performances since the victory over Newcastle have been consistently poor – with the fortunate win over Huddersfield serving to disguise an overall malaise. From potential ‘best of the rest’ to probable bottom half finishers would deliver a disappointing and underachieving season. All things being equal it would be no surprise if the Hammers bagged ‘nul points’ from the six remaining games against more skilful, better organised and more committed opponents. Finishing below Crystal Palace is now a definite possibility unless an unexpected turnaround in attitude and application occurs.
Compared to the teams left competing for 7th spot (Wolves, Everton, Leicester and Watford) the Hammers resemble a collection of barely introduced individuals and a far cry from a team with structure and purpose where each member is aware of the roles they play, both on and off the ball. Intensity, pace and a compact shape are fundamental to modern Premier League football and none of these have been consistently demonstrated at West Ham over the course of the season. Manuel Pellegrini and his coaching staff must take a huge slice of responsibility for the way the situation has developed. Admittedly it is still a relatively new regime but if they do not have the players to execute their preferred style then they need to adjust the style to suit the players; at least until better options can be recruited – hopefully, from a recruitment policy that steers well clear of the over 30’s and the perpetually injured.
The full-back situation is a prime example of square pegs and round holes. None of the current candidates have been performing at an acceptable Premier League standard and yet the setup of the team allows opponents acres of space down the flanks as the full-backs push up there is minimal support from the midfield or attacking wide men. No wonder so many opposition goals come from these areas and that Lukasz Fabianski is the most overworked keeper in the division.
The emergence of Declan Rice has been a massive bonus for West Ham but he cannot do it all by himself. The need for better options in the centre of midfield has been obvious for several seasons but has been regularly overlooked unless you want to count the signing of Carlos Sanchez. Games are so frequently won and lost in this midfield battleground that the strategy verges on negligence.
When West Ham do gain possession they seem unable or incapable of moving the ball forward quickly. Instead they prefer elaborate, congested triangles which invariably lead nowhere or to lost possession. Several current players are simply not cut-out for the type of quick, intricate passing moves that may have worked well at Manchester City.
With Felipe Anderson going through an enigmatic phase, the most creative player available to Pellegrini is Samir Nasri but he is another who is susceptible to injury. It is reasonable to reserve judgement on Manuel Lanzini for the time-being, given the serious nature of his recent injury, but elsewhere possession is ponderous and predictable.
The post new year dip in form coincided with the injury to Fabian Balbuena and the Marko Arnautovic transfer farrago. With Balbuena now restored to fitness, surely it is time to reform his partnership with Issa Diop in the centre of defence.
The options up front are far less clear cut. Arnautovic’s attitude is all wrong, Javier Hernandez does not contribute enough off the ball (the concept of leading the line is not in his playbook) and Lucas Perez is hopeless. Fielding a tailor’s dummy couldn’t be much worse than having Perez on the pitch. Impossible to predict where Pellegrini’s lucky selection pin will land tonight although we might not get close enough to the Chelsea goal for it to be a problem.
The West Ham season is effectively over. Turn up and go through the motions is likely to be the sum total of what to expect. We can only hope that plans are already underway to load up the Deadwood Stage and steer it out through the transfer window into the wilderness. Too many of the occupants have been over-the-hill for some time..
Now that Sarri has realised he has two more gems available to him in the form of Reuben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi, Chelsea have a wealth of attacking talent to call on – even if they have no established clinical finisher. Add in any combination of Hazard, Kante, Jorginho, Barkley, Willian and Pedro and there is more than enough firepower to overwhelm whatever resistance West Ham take with them.
The hosts can be vulnerable at the back, but see above to understand how West Ham’s attacking limitations are unlikely to cause any panic.
On paper, with Chelsea able to climb up to third by the end of the day, it all looks far too formidable to the West Ham team of recent weeks. A repeat of the rear-guard action witnessed in the corresponding fixture at the London Stadium (and more recently on show at The Etihad) is the most probable game-plan; but once the wall is eventually breached it will be game over.
West Ham will be meeting referee Chris Kavanagh for the fifth time this season. Previous encounters resulting in a win over Newcastle, defeat to Wolves and draws with Huddersfield and Brighton.
Unsurprisingly, the pundits see a comfortable home win – Lawro by 2-0 and Merson by 3-0. Equally, I can see nothing more than a solid defeat unless we can miraculously hold out for 0-0. The only mitigation against heavy defeat, by three or four goals, is if Chelsea ease up a little once ahead with their Europa League trip to Prague on the near horizon. I imagine each of the three Top 4 hopefuls that the Hammers have yet to face will already have the game pencilled in as a gimme!