The race to avoid seventh place hots up at the London Stadium this afternoon as West Ham host Leicester City, the team currently holding pole position in the polite scramble for a possible Europa Cup berth. The Hammers recent poor run has effectively ruled them out of contention but we live in a world of mathematical possibilities. Considering recent performances, it wouldn’t come as any surprise if our boys failed to add anything further to the current points tally – finishing with 42 points in a lowly 13th or 14th position. Perhaps acceptable considering the slow start to the season but disappointing given the turnaround by the end of the year.
In fairness, the Hammers were easily the better team last week’s game at Old Trafford and it was only shocking refereeing that denied all three points. It would be nice to think that such injustice will disappear in a post VAR world but we will have to wait and see how playing field levelling it is in practice. Although I welcome VAR in principle I do wonder what impact its implementation will have on the continuity of the game. It is not a stretch to imagine every significant decision being challenged by furious players and managers demanding that the referee consult VAR. TV will love it as it introduces additional cliff hangers into their coverage, to be milked (and sponsored) to the extreme. During the week I watched highlights of the Juventus – Ajax game and almost half the coverage was taken up with pending VAR decisions. Bringing simplicity and clarity back into the game, particularly for offside and handball offences, would be especially welcome for me. Perhaps AI can provide a better solution for catching offside under the current rules than the linesman can, and should replace him/ her altogether.
It is impossible to know what to expect from West Ham today. The only half decent performance in recent weeks was the one at Old Trafford, tellingly against an opposition that were prepared to concede time and space for the Hammers to play. Leicester are unlikely to repeat the favour; especially if they have done their homework and identified how difficult we find it to cope with energetic teams playing with high intensity. With the season almost at an end it would be refreshing if Manuel Pellegrini mixed things up a little and maybe tried different options to preserve the team’s shape. There is a longish list of players who surely have no future at the club beyond this season, so why not have at least three or four youngsters included in the match-day squad instead – even if they are not to be starters. If reports that both Manuel Lanzini and Samir Nasri are unavailable are true then it leaves a big guileless hole in the attacking midfield areas.
I think most of us were moderately pleased with last year’s summer transfer activity but it hasn’t really worked out to plan – notably due to long term injuries to Andriy Yarmolenko (unfortunate), Jack Wilshere (not unexpected) and Carlos Sanchez. The signing of Lukasz Fabianski was inspired, Felipe Anderson is an exceptional talent that needs greater consistency, Fabian Balbuena was a steal (sorely missed during his absence) and Issa Diop has had a great first season (and should be back in the starting eleven now). There are plenty of rumours already regarding upcoming transfers but we will have to wait and see what the size and nature of the investment is going to be. I know it is speculation but I wince every time I see a link to players approaching or past 30 years old. If there is any ambition it won’t be achieved through maintaining that ‘make do and mend’ policy. Does anyone can remember the Johnny Cash song One Piece At A Time; that is how I perceive our team building approach over the years – collect together random pieces and hope that they somehow fit together.
Up at Leicester they seem to have been much smarter investors. It is three years since their fairy-tale Premier League win and they now boast an almost entirely new team having cashed in on Kante, Mahrez and Drinkwater. With a third new manager in as many years they have put together an energetic young squad that puts them in a far better position for the future than our own crop of players. Naturally, the rich clubs will be circling with their eyes on Maddison, Chilwell, Maguire and Tielemans to supplement their Champion’s League benches, but it is not a bad position to be in. Still with today being the easiest of their four remaining matches I don’t see the Foxes hanging on to 7th place, where they may be overtaken by each of Wolves, Watford and Everton.
There is a difference of opinion between the pundits today with Lawro predicting a 2-1 home win and Merson opting for a 1-3 away success. Personally, I don’t believe we will get anything out of the game with Ndidi, Maddison and Tielemans able to dominate the midfield and create sufficient goalscoring opportunities for Vardy & Co to do the damage against an overworked Fabianski. The other three clubs competing for 7th have all visited the London Stadium and won rather comfortably with moderately aggressive and committed performances. That is also the most probable outcome from today – sad to say, but the game has the look of a 2-0 home defeat about it.