As the frenzied excitement of the Premier League title race builds towards a crescendo, West Ham’s season shuffles forwards to the one match capable of putting a superficial gloss onto an otherwise unmemorable campaign. A win against the Tottenham Hotspurs, while become the first visiting team to triumph at the Daniel Levy stadium (thus completing a North London double), would at least provide something to look back on in the years to come.
The failure to build on a strong start against Leicester last week, compounded by a collective loss of concentration in the final minutes, effectively consigned West Ham to a bottom half finish for 2018/19. The final tally will be at the lower end of the 43 to 52 points range with a resulting league position somewhere between 11th and 14th. Ending the season below Crystal Palace and Newcastle is not now an unthinkable outcome. But for the purple patch at the end of 2018, events could have turned out to be much more uncomfortable.
Manuel Pellegrini maintains that West Ham are a team in transition – a state of affairs that has existed for the best part of 50 years. Agreed, the style of football has shown an improvement from recent seasons but little else has changed. Fitness levels, effort, intensity, pace, guile, cohesion and organisation all fall short of that required to perform well at the top level. There should be a strong relationship between a club’s revenues and its league position and by that measure this has been a collective underachievement. Further transition will require significant change – and that will not come cheaply!
Today’s game will be overshadowed by the host’s scheduled midweek appointment in the Champion’s League semi-final. How did that happen? The sooner that Mauricio Pochettino goes on to manage a proper big club the better. Of course, Tottenham still need points to make sure of a top four finish this season but Tuesday will certainly be on the player’s minds. Can West Ham take advantage of that uncertainty or will they turn out to be compliant opponents just as they were in the League Cup clash earlier in the year?
It is unlikely that Pellegrini will do anything radical with his team selection – it would be out of character. Rather, we can expect him to have another shuffle of the usual suspects to fill the starting berths. Surely it is well past the time to bring back Issa Diop to reform his partnership with Fabian Balbuena. Will it be Pablo Zabaleta or Ryan Fredericks; Arthur Masuaku or Aaron Cresswell? Are there any new options available in midfield that would be a little less ponderous? Can Felipe Anderson play more than a second half cameo? Will Jack Wilshere make a contribution without further injury?
The long running selection dilemma exists upfront where West Ham are one of a handful of club where no player has yet to reach double figures for Premier League goals. Does Lucas Perez earn a start following his goal scoring exploits as substitute last weekend? Is Javier Hernandez fit again? Should we just give up with Marko Arnautovic? Who knows what the manager will be thinking? I just get the sense that I will once again be disappointed when I hear the team announced an hour before kickoff!
There is a reasonable case to bemoan how refereeing decisions have gone against the Hammers in recent games. With the North London Diving Academy having some of the league’s most accomplished exponents of going to ground at the slightest change in air pressure, we must rely on Anthony Taylor keeping his wits about him today. Or perhaps this will be the day that all the injustices of the past evens itself out before the introduction of VAR – the Hammers scoring four offside goals and earning three penalties.
Both Lawro and Paul Merson believe Tottenham will just do enough and come away with a 2-1 victory. Theirs is a compelling scenario. West Ham start with enterprise, Spurs score from a set piece and then a penalty, take their foot off the pedal with Tuesday on their minds with the Hammers scoring a late consolation. I will predict a somewhat more optimistic outcome on the basis that both sides might happily settle for a draw – rare as that is for the hosts.